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Audio: Is Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Winning Support from the People?

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Yuhua Wang, Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University, speaks at the Stanford China Program on November 12th, 2018.

“Win support from the people,” Yuhua Wang, Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University, repeated the words from one of Xi Jinping’s speeches that was given to justify China’s massive anti-corruption campaign. The exact scope and motivations for President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is, as yet, unknowable, Wang stated; but clearly, a major public aim of CCP Chairman Xi Jinping was to build regime support by cracking down on bad actors in the government.

Prof. Yuhua Wang gave a talk titled “Why Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign has Undermined Chinese Citizens’ Regime Support?” at the Stanford China Program on November 12th, 2018, based on a national-level survey analysis that he had conducted with his co-author, Prof. Bruce Dickson at George Washington University. Rather than focusing on Xi’s motivations for undertaking his crackdown, however, Wang and Dickson tried to measure the impact of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign on public perception of the central government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Did the campaign, in other words, shore up public support for China’s central government and Party, as Xi hoped it would – or did it, in fact, undermine regime support?

Professor Wang first offered some background on how this anti-corruption campaign got started around 2012-2013, shortly after Xi Jinping became Chairman of the CCP. A staggering 261 vice-ministerial officials and 350,000 officials had been investigated to date; and, even those at the highest levels of China’s leadership – former Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee members, for instance –were not immune from scrutiny. And, equally unprecedented, media coverage of these corruption cases – from Bo Xilai to Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou – were extensive, exposing their lavish lifestyles and illicit dalliances on social and traditional media. Wang speculated that such lurid publicity most likely shocked the public, potentially turning citizens against even the central government, which consistently enjoys significantly higher levels of public trust than local governments in China. He decided, therefore, to explore with his co-author what the effects of such exposés might be on public perception of the central regime.

Replicating the same questionnaire and sampling design, Wang and his co-author took a national random sample in two waves – one before the anti-corruption campaign in 2010 and a second one during the campaign in 2014. They interviewed approximately 4,000 people across 25 provinces in China in order to measure potential shifts in people’s attitudes towards the regime over those four years. The findings were, indeed, illuminating:

First, Wang stated, increasing frequency of corruption investigations in a locality was correlated with a greater drop in popular regime support (defined as trust in central government or support for the CCP) in that locality. Higher volume of corruption investigations in a locality was also negatively correlated with people’s perception that government officials were generally honest and clean. The corrosive effects of the campaign, furthermore, proved strongest on those who had initially believed in the integrity of government officials; but for those who were already cynical about official corruption, the campaign had a smaller effect. Lastly, higher the survey respondent’s use of social media like WeChat, stronger the negative effects on his/her support for the regime. The authors also took into account how the chilling effects of the campaign may be negatively impacting local economies and how that slowing economy may actually be the primary cause behind decreasing public regime support. To account for this potentially confounding effect, Wang looked for evidence as to whether the campaign had contributed to a slowdown in China’s economy by 2014. Perhaps because 2014 was still early on in the campaign, he stated that they found no evidence of slower GDP growth rate, growth rate per capita GDP, etc., in the regions where they had undertaken their surveys.

Overall, Wang’s research calls into question whether Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is, in fact, advancing one of his main goals– i.e., to increase people’s faith in the central regime – or whether it is actually proving counterproductive to his aim. In fact, Wang’s research seems to indicate that the more Chinese citizens are exposed to evidence of government corruption, the more the central regime appears to suffer a loss in credibility. Wang was careful to point out, however, that they were barred, due to political sensitivity, from asking any questions regarding respondents’ attitudes towards Xi Jinping himself. Thus, it is still an open question whether popular support for Xi Jinping himself is increasing even though public trust in the regime might be decreasing.

The recording and transcript are available below.  

yuhua_wang_talk_transcript.pdf