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FELDMAN, Steven P. 2023. Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Campaign: The Politics of Revenge. London: Routledge.

Kerry Brown
p. 89-90

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1One of the activities most closely associated with Xi Jinping 習近平, Chinese leader since 2012, has been the almost perpetual anticorruption purges that have been undertaken under his leadership. These started soon after he came into office, with blows against major figures such as former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang 周永康, and the previous Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai 薄熙來. The cleanup spread to the military, then into state-owned enterprises, down to provincial-level organisations, and even into the state security apparatus, which until then had been almost untouchable.

2Steven Feldman had the opportunity in 2016 to stay for a year in China and interview various figures who were observers of the campaign then unfolding. Some of these were Chinese academics, others senior personnel in either Chinese or foreign companies. He also had the chance to speak to some officials, though he admits that the numbers here were small.

3This latter fact is not surprising. As Feldman makes clear in his opening argument, officials were the core target for Xi’s campaign, which while it was directed at corruption and misuse of public office for private gain, was also fundamentally about power. In this emerging setup, Feldman describes how Xi came into a situation that succeeded the ten years of “inactivity” by his predecessor Hu Jintao 胡錦濤, where the Party’s legitimacy (never strong at the best of times) was being daily undermined by the poor behaviour, greed, and selfishness of various personal networks and broader factions.

4In this description, the aim of the anticorruption campaign was to channel what Feldman describes, using the work of, amongst others, Friedrich Nietzsche, as “ressentiment” from the powerless and those lower down the hierarchy in Chinese society, towards the almighty officialdom that had been able to act with impunity over the previous few years. The structure of the Xi leadership was to present the key figure as a paternalistic moral source of certainty, something like a Communist Confucian saviour, using the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the chief graft busters, to address the anger and frustration of ordinary people in China by taking aim at corrupt officials and bringing them down.

5Feldman is good at describing the performative aspects of the Xi anticorruption campaigns. The public were told that the Party was going after its own “tigers and flies,” both the high and the low, in ways that had never been seen before. But most eyes were inevitably focussing on the tigers, and getting vicarious pleasure out of seeing the once untouchable reduced to humiliation and loss of all power.

6There were many deeper issues for the Party, however, that remained untouched by the drama of what was happening on the surface. In a system where officials are very poorly paid, and where the law is the servant of the Party-state’s aims rather than an external force that holds it to any sort of account, corruption is almost unavoidable. This gave much of what the Xi campaigns achieved an arbitrary nature. Almost anyone could have been ensnared. The ones that were caught were often people with defined objections to the conduct of Xi’s rule, or to his even being in this position in the first place. Inevitably, any who chose to articulate or act on this opposition received swift and decisive treatment.

7The campaigns once they were in full swing did cause a freezing up of the decision-making system. Corruption before had, as another scholar in this area, Andrew Wedeman, made clear, managed to occur in China even when there was high growth. Indeed, there were those that argued that the shortcuts, loopholes, and compromises that corruption offered at least meant an impossibly complex, Kafkaesque system did provide some ways of working with it. The disappearance of these circuit breakers meant that for businesses and others, officials became risk averse, often refusing to act because of terror that they were making themselves open to claims of acting improperly. Fear, as Feldman several times makes clear, is a major means by which the Party exercises control. And when the anticorruption people came, no one knew who might be nabbed, and why. Everyone, just by working in the system, was complicit.

8In his chapter on the rule of law in China, Feldman asserts that the anticorruption campaigns were an attempt to operate as a kind of legal instrument, even despite the fact that they were much more fundamentally a political tool, and one intimately related to the nature of Xi’s leadership, and the overall purpose designed for it. One of the strengths of his analysis here is to desist from the claim made by so many others that the Xi leadership is about the sole figure of Xi and his hunger for power and personal aggrandisement (see for example Shirk 2018). As Feldman makes clear, there were generic, structural reasons for why a one-person centred leadership structure was needed, not less the fact that in Maoist fashion this offered an opportunity to bypass the Party itself in appealing to the people. The irony is that the very man who sits at the top of the Communist Party is able to magically talk directly to the public in his leadership persona of the faults, and the need to clear them up, of the entity he is in charge of. His campaigns have even recruited the public to report on and denounce officials. This is a remarkable achievement of circularity!

9This is a book written in a succinct, clipped fashion. Throughout, it makes salient points. One of the most interesting was the idea that the Communist Party does not have morality, but it has ideology. This answered a question I had had for years about what the moral values of the Party were. Feldman is also very clear finally on just how far trying to run China along these lines will prove unsustainable simply because in the end it will never be able to address the question it is meant to answer – the Party’s very weak legitimacy. His field research was undertaken during a moment when Xi was a relatively new, popular leader domestically. In the last six years, however, the economic downturn from both the continuing impact of anticorruption campaigns, and the pandemic from 2020, has raised more questions for the centralising style that Xi has adopted. This book therefore is best characterised as a study of how these campaigns could be understood at their peak, and what the intentions behind them were then. In addressing this, it does a very good job indeed.

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SHIRK, Susan L. 2018. “China in Xi’s ‘New Era’: The Return to Personalistic Rule.” Journal of Democracy 29(2): 22-36.

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Bibliographical reference

Kerry Brown, “FELDMAN, Steven P. 2023. Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Campaign: The Politics of Revenge. London: Routledge.”China Perspectives, 134 | 2023, 89-90.

Electronic reference

Kerry Brown, “FELDMAN, Steven P. 2023. Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Campaign: The Politics of Revenge. London: Routledge.”China Perspectives [Online], 134 | 2023, Online since 01 September 2023, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College. King’s College, Bush House North East Wing 5.02, London, United Kingdom (

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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