I once spoke with a Chinese academic whose parents had fled China during the 1930s, appalled by the greed and corruption rampant in the country before the communist revolution. They returned after 1949, leaving comfortable jobs in California universities to help build a new China.

The academic’s father suffered during the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and died a broken man after a prison sentence. But her mother always remained faithful to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). She regarded her husband’s travails as a personal price paid for a greater good.

In her last years, however, the academic’s mother grew increasingly depressed by the rising tide of corruption. When she died, it was with the sense that she and her husband had offered a lifetime of sacrifice in vain. The poisonous immorality of the 1930s had returned.

As 2015 begins, the fight against corruption has come to consume a large share of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s energy and attention—and rightly so. The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International lists China as the world’s 80th most corrupt country, between Greece and Tunisia. As story follows story of government officials flashing Rolex watches, driving Maseratis, and being overly familiar with overseas tax havens, public distrust of the CCP is growing.

So, does China’s most powerful leader in a generation have enough clout to stop the rot?

After the death of Mao Zedong, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, decided that one-man rule was too dangerous for China, because it exposed the country to the worst excesses of capricious tyranny. So, from Deng’s retirement in 1992 until Xi’s selection for the top job two years ago, China’s leadership was collective and consensual. Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were less emperors than primi inter pares (first among equals).

Now, however, the pendulum has swung back toward “imperial" leadership, after a growing perception of drift at the top of the Party hierarchy led many to worry that big decisions—not least those regarding economic reforms—were being ducked.

Since assuming his post, Xi has rapidly consolidated all of the main levers of power, elbowing aside his prime minister, the ineffectual Li Keqiang.

Moreover, many CCP members have been spooked by the arrest of Bo Xilai, a top official whom some suspected of plotting a power grab. And they have likely become even more frightened following the arrest of Zhou Yongkang, the longtime head of China’s security services and the highest-ranking member of the Politburo yet detained.

The success of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is crucial for China’s future. It is the only way to ensure that merit trumps favouritism—and thus to end the country’s colossal misallocation of resources. When credit is politicized, investment priorities quickly become distorted. Bribery and the sale of jobs make matters worse.

Xi is what the Chinese call a “princeling", the son of a Party leader and military hero. He behaves with aristocratic self-confidence. But even he has had to obey the first rule of the game: Don’t name the corrupt until the Party decides who they are.

Call it graft-busting with Chinese characteristics: It would have been straightforward (though politically hazardous) to insist that public officials declare their sources of income. Instead, the leadership has been arresting the activists who have called for it to do just that.

When Bloomberg and The New York Times published details about top leaders’ families (including Xi’s) who had their snouts deep in the trough, both came under severe official attack and were forced to curtail their China coverage rapidly. Some speculate that one reason Xi may have tapped former vice-premier Wang Qishan to lead the fight against corruption is that he and his wife have no children—no grasping offspring to compromise his efforts.

Xi plainly has no intention of changing China’s political culture, even though it leans against the task that he has set out to accomplish. Transparency, pluralism, the rule of law, a free press, and democratic accountability are the best guarantees of honesty in public life—and the surest route to securing the sort of economic reforms that Xi wants.

China has increasingly sought to project the success of its markets-and-mandarins development model. But, as China’s economy slows in 2015, its imperial leader is likely to discover that there really is a link between a society’s openness and the sustainability of its economic success. ©2015/Project Syndicate

Chris Patten is the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs. He is also chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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