Anti-graft drive must go beyond purge

The detention of former Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang for graft caused a sensation for what it signalled - that no one is untouchable in President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive. The perceived immunity of members of the apex Standing Committee of the Politburo is seen as the price the Chinese Communist Party has had to bear for internal stability, following the purges of previous periods. Nothing less than the boldness Mr Xi has displayed in making no exceptions is needed to root out deep-seated corruption. Mr Xi says it threatens the survival of the party and has seriously damaged the people's trust in the government, as manifested in past mass demonstrations.

Cynics say that Mr Xi's resolute campaign has as much to do with a struggle for power as with decisively tackling graft at all levels. There are some elements of the duality in the case of Mr Zhou. In the run-up to the leadership transition in 2012, Mr Zhou was said to have conspired with the now disgraced former party boss of Chongqing city Bo Xilai to oust Mr Xi in a coup. There are also hints of factional struggle in the corruption case of former general Xu Caihou.

That said, it is hard to gainsay the depth and breadth of Mr Xi's anti-graft drive, given that more than 182,000 party officials at various levels have been investigated and that more than 480 officials have been arrested, among them 30 leaders at the level of vice-minister and above.

The fear expressed by some that the hunt for "tigers and flies" - senior officials and the rank and file - will hurt the economy is overstated. Two past anti-graft drives - in Xiamen in 1999 and Shanghai in 2006 - did not do much damage to the two cities' economies and, arguably, could have even boosted their growth. This can result when money that would have been siphoned off by corrupt officials is put to good public use.

Sustaining the current purge is a political judgment that Mr Xi will have to weigh carefully as its effects are unsettling and have led to passive resistance among officials. Factional strife could prove treacherous if not curbed skilfully.

What is also necessary are institutional reforms and introduction of checks and balances within the party system to improve governance and keep corruption at bay. Reformists were reassured when, the day after the investigation of Mr Zhou was announced, news came that reforms of the legal system to improve the rule of law will be discussed at the party's Fourth Plenum in October. How deep and wide these and other institutional reforms are and how they are implemented will help shape the outcome of China's complex war against corruption.