Orville Schell is a leading thinker on China. An author who has written 10 books about China, he has helped to define the emerging superpower to the outside world. In an telephone interview with The Globe and Mail from New York, he said the anti-corruption campaign shows an understanding that the “cancer” of corruption “led to the ends of dynasties.”
The Chinese President is acting masterfully, Mr. Schell added, and he is profiting from a Chinese yearning for a strong leader.
What does the formal announcement of the investigation into Zhou Yongkang mean?
Chinese put a very high premium on formal ritual. Things have to be done at the right time, with the right choreography, with the right blush on it. It’s not that this is news to anybody. But it’s almost like a wedding, a ritualization of something that everybody knew was happening anyway.
Is President Xi Jinping just knocking down rivals with this anti-corruption campaign?
Corruption is an enormous cancer within the system, and the Chinese Communist Party remembers all too well that it was at the root of the fall of the Kuomintang nationalists. They know there are millennia of history of corruption in imperial governments, and they know how these things led to ends of dynasties. So I think Mr. Xi is a very serious, quite authoritarian man who sees the dynasty in peril, and he sits in this grand tradition – which is almost encoded in the genetic makeup of Chinese leaders – of trying to bring it back from the brink. He has identified, and I think properly so, corruption as a very serious threat to the continuation of the Communist Party.
The Communist Party has refused any independent check on its power, including from the courts. Is it possible to do battle with corruption without allowing some sort of independent body?
It’s very difficult to see how by punitive action alone they’re going to bring corruption to heel.
How great is the risk of this anti-graft campaign angering people inside the party, and spurring attacks on Mr. Xi’s leadership?
Communist parties, it doesn’t matter what country, have always had incredible factions and intrigues. And the successful ones have usually been ones where there’s a strong enough leader to assert control.
Mr. Xi so far looks to be keeping the high-wire act on the wire.
He is so opaque. You really need to go back to some of the early legalistic writings, a non-Confucian tradition filled with advice to leaders about not revealing what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. Keep everybody off guard. Be there but don’t be there. You don’t justify. You don’t explain. You just act resolutely. And I think he’s so far been quite a master at it.
I have been surprised by how young Chinese are enamoured of him.
I don’t want to get too mushy about it, but I think there is something about the soul of Chinese politics that yearns for a strong leader. And it doesn’t yearn for a strong system. That was what made Mao, even after all his crimes, still a compelling figure. China really craves the country to be wealthy, powerful and respected in the world, and there’s something in the Chinese genome that understands that power is respect. Power wins respect. That is where democrats in China, I think, just miss what really animates the place.
But isn’t that just a human impulse?
Since the Enlightenment there’s been a very strong prejudice in Western culture on the side of openness and more democratic forms of governance. There is this naive belief that the teleology of history is toward democracy. I don’t think that’s true in China.
So I think Mr. Xi has tapped into a traditional yearning in China not for openness, democracy and humanism – which was the Confucian tradition – but toward the other side of the yin-yang tradition, which is the legalistic tradition of wealth and power.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.