Even as China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, promises to root out corrupt officials, he has launched a serious crackdown on ordinary citizens who have dared to raise the same subject in public.

At least 16 activists have been arrested or detained since banners were unfurled in Beijing in March and April demanding that officials “publicly disclose assets.” The arrest last week of prominent activist Xu Zhiyong heightened the sense of despair among leading liberals about China’s new leadership and prompted open letters of protest.

The crackdown dramatically illustrates the Chinese leadership’s paranoia about street protests that could snowball. The government seems haunted by memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the Arab Spring and China’s own short-lived 2011 “Jasmine Revolution.”

The arrests also signal that any moves by Xi to punish corruption will be on his and the Communist Party’s terms.

“From the ruling party point of view, they think anti-corruption is an internal affair — citizens have no right to judge them; they are fighting corruption on their own,” said lawyer Liang Xiaojun, who is representing one of the arrested activists. “But the one-party system has never been good at fighting corruption on its own. The contradictions just get increasingly sharpened.”

Since Xi became president in March, he has made largely symbolic moves to battle corruption, with a ban on lavish displays of wealth, such as the alcohol-fueled banquets that had been a hallmark of Communist Party rule in recent years. Xi has pledged to catch the “tigers” — important functionaries — as well as the “flies” who steal public money; some senior officials have been removed from office, and former railways minister Liu Zhijun was convicted this month of using his office to embezzle large sums.

But with Liu’s death sentence suspended and the trial conducted behind closed doors, many people here are skeptical. The prosecutions of individual officials also don’t convince many Chinese that the system is interested in cleaning house, say experts who monitor public opinion online.

Replacing officials won’t change anything, said one commentator in a post on a micro­blogging Web site that was widely circulated but has since been deleted. “The meat has always gone bad in the fridge,” the post said. “Should we change the meat or the fridge? What do you say?”

Even before he was jailed last week, Xu had been under house arrest since April and had not taken part in any demonstration, said his attorney Liu Weiguo. Still, the lawyer said, his client has been charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Liu said he has been illegally denied access to Xu since the July 16 detention.

Xu, 40, is the founder of the New Citizen Movement, a grass-roots social campaign that promotes the protection of human rights and the limiting of the unbridled power of officials. In a statement Monday, two of the movement’s supporters said that the group was “well-intentioned, not hostile — that it is constructive, not destructive.”

Yet by campaigning for a public declaration of officials’ property and assets, the activists represent a threat to the vested interests that underpin Communist Party rule.

“We believe we stand on the right side of history,” investor Wang Gongquan and journalist Xiao Shu said in their statement, vowing never to “yield in the face of despotic power.”

The statement, like news of Xu’s arrest, has been ignored by state-controlled Chinese media, and all mention of it has been removed from social media sites.

A popular saying in China goes: Failing to fight corruption will kill the country, but battling it would kill the Communist Party.

“You can’t legitimately govern a country when the party is so corrupt, but at the same time, they [the leaders] rely on the party,” explained Wang Feng, a senior fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing. “If you punish your own officials, you won’t have a party.”

That viewpoint leads some people to argue that China’s president may be sincere in his battle against corruption but that he is proceeding at his own pace or on his own terms. “I see no reason to write it off as a show designed just to keep the masses distracted while the looting continues,” said Donald Clarke, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, on the ChinaFile Web site. “But it does mean that reform will not involve outside accountability. We’ll handle it ourselves, thank you very much. Sorry, citizens: it’s really none of your business.”

Mao Zhaohui, director of the Center for Anti-Corruption and Clean Government at Renmin University in Beijing, said he believes that Xi is serious about fighting corruption.

“Political reform in China will only be delivered gradually,” Mao said. “Give us time and be patient. More drastic anti-corruption methods will only trigger powerful vested-interest groups to fight back harder. Personally, I don’t agree with street democracy. That does not offer hope; it will only make things worse.”

The Communist Party’s central disciplinary committee says that more than 30,000 party members were punished for corruption last year, a rise of 12.5 percent from the previous year, state media reported.

But in a party with more than 85 million members, in which corruption has become endemic and the top leadership appears immune to prosecution, those kinds of numbers fail to impress activists. They say Xi’s anti-
corruption talk is merely a smoke screen that allows the president to crack down harder on dissent.

Hu Jia, a well-known activist, said Xi was not interested in reform. “The tightening of control comes from the party’s fear about a changing society, including the speed of social media,” Hu said. “The party is finding it harder to control the situation, especially public opinion, and there is a danger of them losing control finally one day. No wonder they will try to hang on to power by all means.”

Renowned artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who was detained for about three months in 2011 and whose passport remains in government hands, said the system is structurally so corrupt that internal reform is impossible. “I don’t think they are capable. They don’t have the ideology,” he said. “Most people have totally lost hope.”

Liu Liu and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.