When it comes to fighting government corruption, few Chinese leaders have had as ruthless a reputation as Emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming Dynasty. After taking the throne in the 14th century, he embarked on a fierce cleanup campaign, executing tainted officials and using their skins to make chairs and even scarecrows, which were displayed in government quarters as a warning sign to those tempted to stray.
Since coming to power in November 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched his own high-profile drive to root out malfeasance, calling the problem a grave threat to the long-ruling Communist Party's existence. He vowed to take aim at both tigers (high-ranking cadres) and flies (lowly bureaucrats).
No one's being literally skinned, but last week, Xi's campaign snagged its fattest cat yet: Xu Caihou, a retired general and former vice chair of the Central Military Commission, which controls China's armed forces.
Accused of taking bribes in exchange for promotions, the 71-year-old Xu is the highest-ranking military officer to be kicked out of the party and detained for possible prosecution in more than 40 years. Three other senior officials, including a former deputy police minister, also were expelled to face corruption charges.
In the last 20 months, nearly 30 officials of provincial and ministerial level or higher have been investigated for corruption, the state-run New China News Agency said last week. As for "flies," 182,000 officials were disciplined in 2013 alone, and courts nationwide tried 23,000 corruption cases.
In the first five months of this year, 62,953 officials were punished, up 34.7% from the same period last year, the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times reported.
Government authorities and state-run media have pointed to the general's case and others, including the life sentence for corruption meted out to Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai last year, as proof that Xi's campaign is serious, and that no one is beyond its reach.
But many political analysts and ordinary Chinese remain skeptical that the drive can be sustained, let alone produce lasting change. Xi has yet to place any close allies in the cross hairs (Bo was a political rival), nor has he introduced structural reforms — such as requiring officials to disclose their assets — that might curb bribery and other influence-peddling. On the contrary, a number of civic activists who have pressed for such measures have been detained or sentenced to jail this year.
"The campaign is still very selective. It's mainly still a political power struggle under the flag of an anti-corruption campaign," said Zhang Lifan, a party historian in Beijing. Xi, he said, is shoring up his power base by clearing out opponents within the party, including "old and weak tigers," but many prominent families suspected of serious violations remain untouched.
"So far, it's about making a smaller circle of tigers," Zhang said. "It's not a systematic change."
Just how long the campaign will go on is unclear. It is widely believed that at least one more tiger — retired chief of domestic security Zhou Yongkang — will soon face charges. Although authorities have yet to make any statement acknowledging that Zhou is under investigation, dozens of his former aides, associates and family members have already been detained or sanctioned.
Read one way, the near-daily drone of news reports about corrupt officials demonstrates a resolve by Xi's administration to crack down more harshly than his predecessors. But it could also cut another way: At some point the public may conclude that corruption is so pervasive that the entire system needs to be thrown out.
After the party chief of the city of Guangzhou was put under investigation last week, the Global Times ran an editorial aimed at bucking up the masses. "Keep faith in nation's anti-graft campaign," the piece was headlined.
"Chinese society is quite frustrated about the anti-graft efforts of the past years because corrupt officials have continually been exposed at higher frequencies than before," it said. "But it doesn't mean the country's system is facing a major crisis."
But Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst, said he doesn't believe Xi can afford to keep up his "frenetic pace of hitting out at tigers and flies."
"Otherwise, the whole Chinese Communist Party will collapse," Lam said. "Morale is already very low, and Xi and [anti-corruption czar] Wang Qishan are rightly accused of using the anti-graft campaign to target political foes."
Historian Zhang, however, believes the public remains quite supportive of the campaign, enjoying watching one tiger after another taking a fall. "They like these stories and all the little details, such as the tale of this one mistress who was serving not one but two corrupt officials."
Just what percentage of China's senior officials are corrupt is a source of debate; one mainland-based researcher, Ren Jianming, estimated 30% of those with a rank of minister or governor were tainted. Lam said the problem is probably even worse in the military, in part because Xi's predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, were lax with the generals.
"If it is true that 30% of senior cadres are corrupt, then the figure for generals must be over 50%," Lam said. "Corruption has affected the army's combat ability: Money for development is skimmed off, and morale is very low. Only sycophants are promoted."
Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer and consultant with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Assn., said the removal of Gen. Xu, as well as one of his closest lieutenants, Gu Junshan, was a "very good thing" and would serve as a powerful example for others in the armed forces where "the major problem is corruption."
As for whether further purges might be in the offing, he said it was too early to tell. But the fundamental problem, he said, will not be resolved in one or two campaigns.
"It will take a long time," he said, "and there need to be other changes, like making clearer rules on promotions, closing loopholes and introducing more democracy within the system.... Promotions should not be decided by just one or two officials."
So far, though, Xi's campaign has emphasized a return to core party ideology and moral values rather than structural change. Appearing this spring before university students, Xi lectured them: "If you're a cadre, you can't seek riches, and if you want to seek riches, you can't be a cadre."
Many observers believe the best that authorities can do is settle on some "acceptable level" of graft.
"Friends in China have mentioned some such scales: A county official can pocket so much without getting into trouble; ditto a mayor, a governor, a Politburo member etc.," Lam said. "The trouble is once an official has become corrupt, there is no end. It's like getting into a casino. Nobody will stop at the 'acceptable' level."
Zhang said there are lessons for China's current leaders in the history books. Though Emperor Hongwu took a heavy-handed approach to corruption in the Ming Dynasty, he was never able to root it out because the system was fundamentally unaltered. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, likewise wanted to be clean, but "the corrupt officials under him destined the empire to be crushed," Zhang said.
Both the Ming and the later Qing Dynasty, noted Zhang, crumbled because they faced myriad internal problems — including corruption and grievances among the masses — as well as external forces, like the Manchus and Western powers who exerted pressure on the system.
"The current dynasty has a similar internal situation," Zhang said, "but so far, the external situation is less critical."
Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times