The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

China and Saudi Arabia Show Anti-Corruption Is Often About Seizing Power

Recently, the Chinese Communist Party proposed removing the normal ten year limit on how long someone can stay President. Xi Jingping looks likely to be President for life.

Xi is notable for a massive anti-corruption drive, which put a lot of senior party members in jail and terrified many others.

Anti-corruption is good, of course, but in nations where, well, essentially everyone is corrupt, one must watch who is hit for corruption charges and who isn’t. Somehow Xi’s enemies seemed to get hit disproportionately.

Meanwhile, Xi put himself as the leader of every committee of any significance, and lo and behold, he is the indispensable leader now.

And in Saudi Arabia, we have Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Salman is the designated heir, and has been replacing everyone who isn’t loyal to him. Last year, bin Salman took over a Four Seasons hotel, “invited” a number of his relatives and other important people to stay there, then by at least one account (which I find credible) tortured some of them.

Even very powerful Saudi princes, like Alwaleed, the most personally rich of the princes, were not entirely immune.

His release came hours after he told Reuters in an interview at Riyadh’s opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing and be freed within days.

A senior Saudi official said Prince Alwaleed was freed after he reached a financial settlement with the attorney general.

“The attorney general has approved this morning the settlement that was reached with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and the prince returned home at 1100 a.m. (0800 GMT),” the official told Reuters, without giving details of the terms.

The decision to free him, and the release of several other well-known tycoons on Friday, suggested the main part of the corruption probe was winding down after it sent shockwaves through Saudi Arabia’s business and political establishment.

Alwaleed was careful to make his bow:

Prince Alwaleed, who is in his early 60s, described his confinement as a “misunderstanding” and said he supported reform efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (my emphasis)

Mohammed has taken some actions that Westerners approve of, like somewhat improving rights for women, but he is also busily committing genocide in Yemen, screwed up by trying to blockade Qatar (which did not bring Qatar to its knees), kidnapped the President of Lebanon, and is proceeding with a vast privatization of money-earning Kingdom assets, which will earn Saudi Arabia money (but which will be insufficient to offset the loss of earning power).

But it appears as though the Crown Prince is more of a dictator than any ruler in ages (even if he isn’t officially king yet). He has the power, internally, to do things that were simply not possible when some consensus was expected among the royal family.

All of this should be reminiscent of what Putin did when he gained power: He broke a number of oligarchs, sent them to jail or into exile, and took most of their fortunes. But he made deals with others, so long as they were loyal. As a result, his “anti-corruption” efforts weren’t about eliminating corruption at all, they were about loyalty to Putin and the state. Russia continues to be a corrupt mafia state (mafia states have rules, they are just mafia rules). This corruption has hurt its economy, though Putin’s policies are still better than those that came before.

In India, what Modi has been doing bears some resemblance to this pattern as well: Consolidating control disguised as anti-corruption.

Anti-corruption is rather different from seizing power by using corruption charges to break one’s enemies or bring them to heel as new, terrified, allies while warning everyone else not to get out of line.

Real anti-corruption goes deep, hits almost everyone, and generally comes with increases in the wages of bureaucrats at the lower and middle levels, as much corruption is a result of inadequate compensation leading to bribes replacing the actual salary.

Much of this critique, minus the strong man bit, could be applied to the US, I might add, but perhaps another day. In the meantime, appreciate the good those seizing power do, when it exists, but recognize their motives and the dark side, as displayed in Yemen, or when Putin very likely set up the second Chechen war.

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  1. Ed

    I would be interested in your take on the USA sometime. My observation is that Trump is setting up his Democratic successor for exactly such an “anti-corruption” campaign. It wouldn’t be hard to whip up a frenzy about corrupt politicians who took foreign money… and crack down harder on some than others.

  2. Hugh

    Yes, anti-corruption drives in kleptocracies are about re-ordering the kleptocracy, not ending it. I have taken to thinking of Xi as Xidi or the Emperor Xi. It is like China for the last 2200 years has been caught in an endless loop of weakness and fracturing followed in periods of strength by a return to the imperial system. And an imperial system needs an emperor, right? The inevitable weakness and fracturing should be a clue that the imperial system doesn’t work, but nooo…

    For me, the KSA has always been a repressive dictatorship. The first and only goal is the continuation of the monarchy. In this regard, I see Salman as generational churn, but the underlying methodology remains the same. Buy off regardless of the costs to anyone else, as with promoting Saudis to fund terrorists abroad (911 anyone) as long as they don’t do so at home or turning over the educational system to fundamentalist xenophobes. The latest wrinkle, one that Salman is putting his personal stamp on, is a Saudi led anti-Shiite “crusade” or jihad. This combines with the other prong of the monarchy’s strategy to preserve itself: crush whom you can’t buy off. Finally, everything you want to know about Salman is contained in his response to the question of how his buying an $800 million French chateau and a $500 million yacht squared with his anti-corruption campaign. He said he gave 51% of his wealth to the “people” (i.e. the billions he has stolen from them) and only kept 49% (of the billions he has stolen from them) for himself. He said this unselfconsciously and that says it all.

  3. The Stephen Miller Band

    He said he gave 51% of his wealth to the “people” (i.e. the billions he has stolen from them) and only kept 49% (of the billions he has stolen from them) for himself. He said this unselfconsciously and that says it all.

    HaHa!! This made me laugh out loud precisely because it’s so true. It really is this simple when you reduce it 100% and yet so many refuse to see it, maybe because they know what happens when you see it and perhaps later act on what you see. Usually not very good things happen to those who dare pull the wool.

    MLK saw it and look where he is. But he’s just a famous person. Think of all those who weren’t famous but saw just as well as Martin Luther King and like him they acted on it and influenced their diminutive, unknown-to-most, Hemisphere of Reality. The Unsung Ones — and they (we, for some of us here at least) are Legion. Their Bones have helped to build this Formidable Prison Wall that pens us in and precludes our Social Evolution.

    That’s depressing, I know. Oh well. Sorry. I guess I could have lied and airbrushed it.

  4. Peter

    Michal Aoun is the president of Lebanon, a Christian while Saad Harari is still the PM of Lebanon and a Sunni. He reversed his resignation and returned to Lebanon when the threat of a Hezbollah assassination eased but the Saudis may have been a little over protective of Lebanon’s point man confronting Hezbollah and Iran.

    MBS in the KSA has a lifetime of work ahead of him and will need to exercise his power to push past those who resist change. Anti-corruption drives open the way for safer foreign investment and the modernization plans are the only way to convert an oil shiekdom into a modern attractive economic state.

    If the economic system can be modernized then the social and political modernization can begin but it will take decades.

  5. Tom W Harris

    If Trump decides to stay in office indefinitely, we may find that pro-corruption is often about seizing power as well.

  6. Hugh

    Lebanon’s constitution prescribes the distribution of offices along sectarian lines. It does not specify explicitly who gets what, but in practice, as per wiki, “The President, for example, has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a Muslim, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Eastern Orthodox.”

    No census has been conducted in the country since 1932. The guesstimates are something like 40% Christian, 27% Shia, and 27% Sunni, but again it is not clear how accurate these numbers are.

    The idea that the KSA is going to give up on Wahabism when it controls the educational system and runs the society is ridiculous. And as long as the KSA remains Wahabist, social and political modernism isn’t in the cards.

    I have been looking for a modern attractive economic state. If someone has one, let me know. I’d like to put it up beside my collection of Princess Sparkle ponies.

    Meanwhile back in the real world, the KSA is a desert. In 1950, it had a population of less than 4 million. It currently has a population of 29 million, and by 2050, it is projected to be 40 million. Or multiples above the physical country’s carrying capacity. In the face of this unsustainability, Salman is doing cosmetic changes at home and expensive foreign adventurism abroad. The KSA is like a sloppy fireworks factory: gunpowder spilled everywhere and everyone playing with matches.

    Even here in the US, we don’t have decades to deal with (as in mitigate) the twin tsunamis of climate change and overpopulation. The KSA is already gone. It just doesn’t know it yet.

  7. Anre

    Forgot to mention Brazil, where this pattern was clear and has become more exposed since.

  8. Willy

    This dynamic scales to everyday life. Every player I knew in the corporate world tried to tar more honest competitors as “corrupt” or “evil” to glean enough support from the others in their quest to assume their manifest destiny as alpha. I see them as nothing more than grown playground bullies who cannot justify their impulses by yelling “Cooties!” anymore.

    Since nothing can really happen without the approval of the mob, the everyday non-player must become more competent at determining what really is “Cooties!” and what is just another power grab. I don’t think sending kids to schools emphasizing things like faith-based reasoning and rote-memorization, instead of logic, is the way towards that end.

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