Since 2013, China's new leadership's most eye-catching performance has been in its fight against corruption.
In the past two years, they have brought down more than 10 "tigers" at the county, ministerial, and military command level and above, as well as many more "flies" at the county, municipal, and departmental level.
Xi Jinping is doing that which neither Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, nor Hu Jintao wanted to do, or was able to do, and he is doing it effectively and with gusto, in an orderly and tightly controlled manner.
This has made a great impression on the whole world, and has earned him a good reputation among ordinary Chinese people, as far as I have heard.
But professor Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard University fears that great risks may come along with this approach. His words may sound harsh and impolite, but the best medicine is always bitter, and it's worth paying attention to them.
It's not that MacFarquhar is against the anti-corruption campaign. But the problem lies with whether or not the "tigers and flies" approach can succeed in fighting it.
All of the emperors of China's past, with the exception of those who didn't care, were practitioners of the "tigers and flies" approach, as a way of preserving national stability.
The Ming dynasty [1368-1644] in particular, from the first emperor Taizu to the fall of the dynasty with the last Chongzhen emperor, can be said to have had considerable determination and to have taken considerable measures to eradicate corrupt officials down to the last one.
An unfinished job
But not a single emperor ever finished the job, let alone solved the problem of corruption at its root. And where is the security of the magnificent Ming dynasty now?
Corruption isn't a discrete social phenomenon. It is the inevitable by-product of a society that is neither equitable nor just nor open. So, to try to eradicate the by-product of such a system without changing the system itself is out of the question.
The type of corruption that is being vividly paraded before the eyes of the world nowadays is a form of corruption with Chinese characteristics. It's the direct result of the nationwide dissemination of Deng Xiaoping's ideas.
Deng Xiaoping was the first person to equate development with "cold, hard reason."
The Great Leap Forward [1958-1961] was a Chinese dream conceived by Mao Zedong, but it needed a driving force, and Mao Zedong used class struggle to try to drive the Great Leap Forward, in his bid to become the leader of a world revolution.
Mao failed in his attempt to overtake Britain and catch up with America.
With Mao at the helm and Deng as his lieutenant, not only did they lose the first battle and fail to hit the 10 million-tonne steel-making target, but they caused the deaths of at least 30 million of their compatriots from starvation.
The official history of the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party doesn't recognize this crime against humanity to this day.
After that, class struggle was no longer to be the driver of the challenge to double production and double it again. A new engine was needed.
A 'mutant economy'
If they had begun political reforms, then justice, fairness, and openness could have emerged, and been perfected. But Deng Xiaoping killed off political reforms at a single stroke with the June 4, 1989 crackdown.
In a bid to avoid taking the country down a dead-end street, Deng sought to strengthen the party's grip on power by revivifying the economy. Unfair competition flourished everywhere. The authorities called this unfair competition the "market economy."
In fact, it was a mutant economy for the benefit of officials, for the elite, for party leaders. Admittedly, this half-baked driver of economic growth was easier to handle than class struggle.
And with the advantage of cheap and abundant natural resources and labor, it gave birth to the miracle of corruption, right around the same time that it was bringing about the Chinese economic miracle.
Corruption is an integral part of the current Chinese system. After more than two decades, a generation, I think we can say that it is rotten and festering to the core.
Former defense minister Peng Dehuai once said that exaggeration was all the rage in departments and regions across China. Today we can say that corruption has surpassed it.
Some people say that there is no part of the body politic that is without open sores, and no corner of earth in China that is clean. I don't think they are exaggerating.
Some researchers have speculated that the ranks of China's tigers and flies might number at least a few million: a corrupt army.
Backlog of cases
Some researchers estimate that it would take at least 100 years to bring to trial all of the backlog of corruption cases, and take all of the country's energy and resources to achieve it.
Take, as an example of how difficult these cases are, the case of Xu Caihou, late vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. This was filed a year ago, and the man has since died, and the prosecution hasn't brought the case.
And if we pool the energy of the entire nation, and do nothing else from now on—only bring corruption cases—perhaps we would eventually clear the backlog. But what to do about all the newly emerging cases that are piling up in the meantime?
Can we engage in selectively fighting corruption, for example, and only go after the corrupt officials who oppose us? Put plainly, this means fighting corruption when we feel like it, and turning a blind eye when we don't, on a whim.
But to do that is to engage in playground games. It's meaningless.
Can we call an end to the anti-corruption campaign? To do so would be to lay waste both country and people. The hopes of the people lie with the fight against corruption, and a retreat now will mean we lose their support.
It's still the rule with corruption that it's easy to get on the horse, but much harder to get off. It's like the pawn in Chinese chess, which can't go backwards once it has crossed the river.
Going after tigers and flies shouldn't be the main focus. It carries very real risks with it.
The work of fighting corruption in China should be done in broad daylight, with a civil society and within the limits set by a constitutional and democratic political system once we have set up an equitable, just ,and open market system with free competition.
Of course, this is no panacea, but it's the most effective, stable, and reliable system, and the one with the least risk attached.
What path we take will decide China's destiny: it will also determine whether or not the Chinese Communist Party can gain access to new vigor and vitality.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.
Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.