Throughout the history of China, rampant corruption was a common factor in bringing down many a great dynasties. The fall in morality at court usually presaged the fall of the empire, with the Mantle of Heaven lost. As the first dynasty, the Chin, collapsed, it was later noted by a scholar of the succeeding Han family (maybe needing to degrade the previous incumbent for the satisfaction of his master) that, ‘The poor often wore the clothing of oxen and horses and ate the food of dog and swine.  They were burdened by avaricious and oppressive officials…’ The Later Han, needing to supplement waning tax revenues caused by the siphoning of corrupt officials, resorted to the open sale (rather than appointment) of posts and sales from the palace – as a result, twenty years later, the ‘deer was running’ and the role of Son of Heaven was up for grabs. Corruption proved terminal for the Yuan and Ming dynasties – in the dying days of the latter, even tax relief for areas suffering from natural disaster was pilfered by voracious eunuchs.

But some dynasties are brought to the point of ruin but revive through strong leadership. The megalomaniac Wu Zetian, the only female Chinese emperor, proved a strong ruler for a long time but in her later years, her judgement became clouded. Taking two young brothers as lovers and indulging their every caprice, Wu let them plunge the court into flagrant immorality. With ‘money poured out like sand’, bribery and corruption were catastrophic for eight years until disgruntled courtiers finally assassinated the two brothers. Having presented herself as a deity in her hour of strength, a dishevelled Wu abdicated the next day. After a brief interlude, her successor Xuanzong, reinvigorating the Tang dynasty, swept the court clean, executing or exiling all former ministers.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, would like to see himself in the Xuanzong role. As General Secretary of the Communist Party, he has massively expanded the anti-corruption drive of his predecessors. With 55 years on the clock, the Communist Party of China hardly counts as a distinguished dynasty and Xi’s pursuit of ‘tigers and flies’ (high and low-level corrupt officials) is widely seen as a genuine campaign to ‘save the Party’; others are more cynical seeing it as a way for Xi to strengthen his power base by purging his rivals.

Tens of thousands of crooked officials have been netted but some of the biggest fish are becoming entangled too. When China’s Ministry of Defence announced that ex-general Xu Caihou was to stand trial, the ministry declared that the bribes received by Xu and his family were tebie juda or ‘extremely huge’. It is alleged that the former Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission had one ton of cash in the basement of his 21,500-square foot Beijing mansion as well as precious stones, calligraphy and paintings. The Financial Times said that the cash was neatly stacked in boxes, each inscribed with the name of the soldier who had solicited a promotion in exchange for it. It is believed that it took at least 10 military trucks to cart away all the ill-gotten gains, reminiscent of Goldfinger, where James Bond (mistakenly) taunts the eponymous villain for the latter’s plan to break into Fort Knox by detailing how many trucks it would take to haul away the gold.

The Communist Party’s refusal to make officials openly declare their assets, a level of transparency that many argue would signal a real commitment to graft-busting, seems counterproductive. While President Xi has declared war on corruption, he has also imprisoned activists who have campaigned for such asset disclosure.

On Sina Weibo, the Chinese social network, one writer commented, ‘Gu Junshan laid offerings in front of Xu Caihou for his promotion. So, if I may, who was it that promoted Xu Caihou?’ Gu Junshan, a former general mentored by the disgraced Xu, was charged with corruption in March. The financial news magazine Caixin reported in January that it took four military trucks to haul away Gu’s accumulated booty, including a gold boat and a gold statue of late Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Though the Chinese empire reached its apogee under the Manchu ruler Qianlong, as with Wu Zetian, age dulled his judgement. Having lost his favourite wife and son, he became enchanted by a good-looking palace guard by the name of Heshan. Charming and intelligent but completely unscrupulous, Heshan single-handedly set the Manchu Qing dynasty on the road to ruin. Rapidly promoted, he installed his family in high posts and, through a network of corrupt henchmen, levied a ‘squeeze’ on officialdom throughout the empire that permanently weakened the very foundations of imperial government. In suppressing a peasant revolt, Heshan’s minions ruthlessly extorted from the already starving peasantry and followed this up by embezzling army allocations and demoralising the troops. On his death, Heshan’s private wealth was estimated at two billion US dollars in modern terms.

Qianlong’s imperial successors struggled to refill the treasury and restore the empire’s integrity but all efforts were forlorn, like shifting sand in a desert. Decadence was too ingrained, reaching a point where the Chinese navy was sent in ill-equipped to face their enemy in the Sino-Japanese War because an admiral had pawned some of their ships’ heavy guns.

It has not reached that stage in China yet but time is running out for President Xi to put the ship of state back on an even keel. If a Heshan-like figure gave Xu Caihou his commissions, then they need to be rooted out as quickly as possible.