Why declaring an amnesty for corrupt officials to promote political reform would not work?

By He Qinglian on August 3, 2012.

Recently, Mr. Wu Si shared his views on the current affairs of China in the form of an interview. “Granting a conditional amnesty to corrupt officials to push for political reform”, he said. A wise man who had made insightful historical observations, Wu went so far as to draw reference to the amnesty system that was practiced throughout the feudal history of China, with the hope that a political reform could be initiated if the dignitaries and officials get pardoned for their corruption crimes. With this, he hoped the officials would set aside their worries and steer the country into a new beginning with the people. 

Wu's ideas only served to indicate that corruption in China has no cure. Those elite intellectuals who care about the future of their country racked their brains and only managed to come up with this idea.
In fact, the proposition that an amnesty be granted so as to faciliate the implementation of a political reform is just an idea that has been brought to the table time and again. As far as I know, back in the 1990s there were individuals in Beijing who proposed that idea and had serious discussion on it. Their idea was that a time line be drawn, the corruption cases before that time line would be pardoned, and those after would be severely punished. In 2000, Steven Cheung (Zhang Wuchang) the renowned economist put pen to paper and suggested a hierarchical corruption system that would legalize corruption of the dignitaries and officials and thus reduce resistance to change and help pave the way for political reform.
Practices to “pardon corruption” that were put in place or widely reported are as follows:

In 1997 the Shenzhen Municipal procuratorial organs launched a trial scheme, the “combat-corruption bank account”. If officials deposit bribes into the bank account specified by the government and retain the proof. Should the corruption case come to light in future, those could be used to get immunity from being held criminally responsible. Two months after the account was set up, it was said that only two deposits had been made. The scheme went dead.
In 2010, Shanghai and Chongqing became of the pilot cities in the nation-wide scheme to collect property tax. As part of its preliminary preparation for this, the Shanghai municipal government once requested over 2000 municipal management cadres to take the initiative and report their assets. Officials were told that if they made honest report on details of the flat(s) their family purchased and the concession given to them, they would get leniency even if they had violated the party discipline and the national law. Those property and assets reported would not be used as evidence in future; and those who concealed their assets would be given severe punishment if discovered. Allegedly, Shanghai Municipal Party Committee expressed the hope that through this declaration, officials could “put down their burden and work”. It thus could be seen as a local testing scheme for pardoning corruption.

In 2004, Wang Minggao presided a national scheme to prevent and punish corruption. The core components of that scheme were to set up a public bank account for officials across the country to deposit the bribes they received at state-owned commercial banks anonymously themselves or ask their relatives to do that for them. To make such deposits, the officials only need to provide the date, the amount of money and its source, they do not have to disclose any personal particulars.

Two special decisions would be implemented. One, those who deposit the money they received in totality within the given period would be exempted from all forms of punishment, regardless of their ranking, the scale of the issues, or if the bribery is come to light in future; two, those who refuse to turn over the graft or do not turn it over in totality within the given period would be expelled from the party and dismissed from public office, and they would also be given the maximum punishment if they violated the criminal law.

There were three supporting measures: 1) based on the real-name deposit scheme, perfect the assets declaration mechanism for public office holders; 2) raise the remuneration for public office holders; 3) establish a sound report system which whistle-blowers can get up to 50% of the illicit money being chased. 

The scheme, with components akin to an amnesty, was initially greeted with praises. It was said that with this scheme put into practice, the anti-corruption work would produce miraculous results. Two months later, these praises died down.

Apart from the lack of political correctness and moral foundation, this corruption amnesty scheme would not work because of the following reasons:
First, China is now a country where morality has collapsed, and the mutual trust between its people has gone. This lack of mutual trust manifests itself not only in the relationship between the government and the people, but also in the relationship between officials and the government they work for. This lack of trust is the result of the long-term political movements and the political culture developed under the governance of the CPC. Throughout the history of the CPC, from Mao Zedong's “drawing the snake out of its hole”, encouragement of whistle-blowing (on family and friends), and to today's total collapse of the moral order that keeps a society running properly, as manifested by corrupt officials, various human-made or natural calamities, and a myriad of forms of depravity like widespread fake goods and pervasive political frauds, the government lacks political credit; enterprises, individual producers, manufacturers and businesses lack commercial credit; and individuals do not have trust in one another.

Chinese officials do not trust the institution because the government is extremely poor at keeping promises. In all its political and anti-corruption campaigns, the Party always says “it would be lenient to those who come clean but strict to those who resist”, and yet invariably those who confessed were indicted based on what they had admitted. Therefore, the saying “confess and get harsh punishment” became popular among officials. As a result, the plan for officials to declare their assets has not been put into practice even though it has been promoted for years. The saying “amnesty” is to the officials a scheme to “drawing the snake out of its hole”. Take Shanghai for example, in 2010 there was an attempt to have municipal cadres declare property they own. Despite the promise that they would not be investigated, the officials in general did it with reservation. Reportedly scarcely anyone declared their wealth truthfully and accurately.

And as for the plan to use that amnesty to exchange for officials support of political reform, step into the shoes of officials and look at it, one would realize that is but a joke. What is it that facilitates the officials to be corrupt and enjoy all kinds of privileges with their mind at ease? It is the authoritarian political system that the CPC painstakingly maintains with heavy spending. Once the institutional protection is gone, what kind of ending would be waiting for those corrupt officials? To them what happened to the dictators toppled in the Arab Spring serves as a warning. Hence, for the officials from the highest levels of the government to the most rudimentary alike, if they were to choose between the actual sense of security afforded by the institution and the promise that they would be pardoned, which one feels safer and more reliable, they would all have an answer in their hearts.

Family of the officials have demands like normal human do. The economic power of the officials allows their family to enjoy higher levels of satisfaction. At present the survival environment for the Chinese people is very harsh, the social order is deteriorating, education quality is low, and there is serious environmental pollution, with limited room for upward mobility there is excessive competition, alongside a host of other social conflicts. No one is leading an easy life. In addition, the officials are fully aware of the perverse actions that the government has been taking and the various forms of social hatred that are accumulating. Hence, those well-off people and officials with over 10 million assets to their name know very well that once they have emigrated, all these issues would go away instantly. It is a series of daunting tasks to initiate political reform in China, but after they have moved out of the country their children and descendant can start a new life.

These are the reasons the Chinese government does not adopt the proposal to declare an amnesty for corrupt officials in exchange for their support on political reform. And even if the amnesty is unconditional like the scheme presided by Wang Mingguo, chances are it would end up as empty talk, not to mention the conditional amnesty that Wu Si suggested.

Finally, it is crucial to make clear that if the CPC is stupid enough to publicly declare an amnesty for corruption, the result would not be a chance to start anew with the people. Instead, it means a big loss of political legitimacy for the Party, which would have one less tool to rein in the officials; and for the people, this means they would completely lose to right to criticize corruption. Those corrupt officials and their fellows would very likely say to anyone who criticize corruption that, “you don't have the means to take graft, so just shut up.”

At present, there are already similar sayings that are targeted people who criticize corruption.
A society where jungle rules are practiced and winners can take all would be more frightening than today's China I am afraid.