What Motivates Chinese President Xi Jinping's Anti-Corruption Drive? : Parallels The push has led to the investigation and punishment of hundreds of thousands of officials — but observers disagree about his intentions. Is the aim to remove rivals or something else?

What Motivates Chinese President Xi Jinping's Anti-Corruption Drive?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In China today a political victory for President Xi Jinping. The Communist Party Congress, the gathering of China's political elite, voted to enshrine Xi's name and ideas in the party Constitution. So the words Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era (ph) will sit in the Constitution alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. To understand Xi's ideas, we're going to start with a look at the core of his legacy so far - an anti-corruption campaign. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It was August 2012. China's 18th Party Congress was weeks away, an event where a politician named Xi Jinping would be anointed China's next leader. Suddenly Xi went missing for three weeks. To this day, nobody outside key members of China's top leadership knows why.

ARTHUR KROEBER: There is a fairly common speculation.

SCHMITZ: Arthur Kroeber is managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics. 2012, says Kroeber, was a tumultuous year for China's Communist Party. A top politician named Bo Xilai was under investigation after his wife was convicted of murdering a foreigner. And corruption within party ranks was spiraling out of control.

KROEBER: One popular story is that Xi went to the party elders and said, look. We've got a serious problem here. This requires, you know, very serious measures to rein in corruption and impose more discipline. And I'll do that, but you need to give me carte blanche to do what I want.

SCHMITZ: And the story goes if party elders weren't prepared to give Xi these powers he wasn't interested in the job. This, of course, is a rumor. But if true, it would help explain how a relatively unknown bureaucrat became one of the world's strongest leaders.

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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In the months before taking office, Xi Jinping delivered a speech announcing the campaign he would use to consolidate power, a sweeping crusade against corruption, which had become prevalent on every level of society after decades of double-digit growth. According to Professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, it was now or never.

WILLY WO-LAP LAM: There is a good possibility, in fact, that if high-level corruption continues, the people will rise up and overthrow the party.

SCHMITZ: Lam says Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to eliminate key members of rival factions within China's Communist Party - the Shanghai faction, led by former leader Jiang Zemin, and the Youth League faction, led by former leader Hu Jintao.

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XI: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: At the opening session of the 19th Party Congress, Xi announced a new era for China. It was a way of distinguishing his policies from his predecessors'. Lam says Xi has started his own faction and become the strongest Chinese leader since Mao by wielding the anti-corruption campaign as a Machiavellian tool to eliminate potential rivals.

KROEBER: I think the evidence that we have is that that is not his aim.

SCHMITZ: Again, Arthur Kroeber. He points to how far-reaching Xi's campaign has been. Hundreds of thousands of officials have been investigated.

KROEBER: His aim is much broader, that he wants to create a system that will survive after him and that, in that sense, he is a kind of member of this Chinese elite that has a sense of mission about the country as a whole.

SCHMITZ: Peter Corne, a managing partner at Dorsey & Whitney, has practiced law in China for more than two decades. He says if Xi's using the campaign to remove political rivals, then it's only a small part of what has become a far-reaching reform of how China's governed.

PETER CORNE: The fact that all government officials are so aware of this and so careful now means that it's become the new normality. It's just changed the way people think and the way people do things. And I think that's going to sustain.

SCHMITZ: Corne says for years, he's felt that practicing law in China was promoting an illusion. He says now it's a little more meaningful. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.

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