Beijing's campaign to clamp down on corruption: effects and limitations

By He Qinglian on July 7, 2014
Source article in Chinese: 何清涟:北京反腐的影响及其“瓶颈”

It's been a year after Xi Jiping and Wang Qishan launched an anti-corruption campaign, the results are impressive. So far, more than 30 officials of provincial, ministerial, or higher levels have been punished, exceeding the total number of officials removed from office during the decade of the Hu-Wen era.

However, this anti-corruption campaign encounters far more troubles than any such campaigns in the past.

Why does the anti-corruption campaign face pressure from multiple directions?

The pressure this campaign faces includes collective resistance from the privileged clique, the skepticism and reservation from inside China and abroad, and the indifference of the Chinese populace. The most commonly seen criticism is that Xi Jinping uses the anti-corruption campaign as a means to carry out a factional cleansing, and such a move would end up threatening the regime. Those of this view include not only members of the privileged clique, but also people from all walks of life and foreign media organizations.

In fact, it is quite easy to see why some of the privileged cliques became targets in this anti-graft campaign: it needs to start from somewhere.

It's been 40 years since China initiated its reform and opening up, to this day the Chinese government still holds in its hand the power of resource allocation. And resource allocation is made almost entirely based on the respective sectors controlled by officials at senior levels.

These sectors, in particular electricity, oil, and the financial sector, become teller machines for families of the privileged, these are sectors in which “big tigers” are hiding. Thus it is natural that these sectors, being very important to the country and the people's livelihood, become the starting point of the anti-corruption campaign.

If Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan want to avoid the accusation of “targeting political opponents” and leave these sectors out in their anti-graft campaign, that would result in even more criticism. For example, people would say that they leave out the big tigers, that they only go after the easy targets and so on; in that way, their anti-corruption campaign would achieve nothing.

It is also necessary that the persons in power clamp down on corruption: if the Chinese rulers allow the privileged of the previous administration to continue their control over the military, police, and the security system, they would only become mere puppets.

During his career as a government official, Zhou Yongkang worked in the oil industry, the police system; in addition to being a supporter and an accomplicit of Bo Xilai, Zhou has control over the oil and energy sectors. Besides, Zhou's family run businesses using their privileges, interfering with the local judiciary; it's been reported that Zhou's family emblezzed more than 100 billion yuan. Because of all of this, it is not surprising that Zhou became an investigation target. The only suitable description for anyone who wants to avoid the accusation of targetting political opponents and leaves a target like this untouched would be: politics moron.

Many of the dissidents and rights activists disapprove the clamp down on corruption because they believe that such a campaign helps to prolong the Communist rule and that would be even worse than allowing corruption to run rampant, and they would rather see the Communist regime speed up its collapse amidst pervasive graft-taking.

This sentiment, I believe, is the result of Xi Jinping's forceful reppression on the people and his control over speech and media being more rigid than during the Hu Jintao era, completely crushing the vibrance of the people.

Yet for a regime to collapse, a number of factors would be needed; corruption alone will not necessarily be enough. When the other required factors are absent, corruption would make China more corrupt; its current deterioration process continues, and people in this country would feel hopeless. Even if China is lucky enough to see the start of democratization in future, progress would be difficult to achieve because corruption has become a part of the national characteristics of the Chinese.

As a scholar spending years in China research, I would like to make clear a few significant issues.

Will anti-corruption threaten the regime?

As John Dalberg-Acton put it, "power tends to corrupt", all normal countries would regard anti-corruption as an indispensable political function, a prerequisite that ensures the normal and effective operation of a government. The issue that should be discussed is “how to clamp down on corruption in an effective manner.” Yet in China, where corruption has become so pervasive that it seriously corrodes even domains where graft-taking should not exist: the judicial system (judges, prosecutors and attorneys) and the education system. And in recent years, propositions that corruption be pardoned have been published three times in the Party’s media outlet. These are indications of how widespread corruption has become in China, and because of this, people are asking the most ridiculous question of “whether anti-corruption would threaten the regime”.

The Chinese government has demonstrated long ago that it provides public disservices, that its officials are good at embezzlement and that it sees the people as enemies. Were it not for the invention of imaginary “hostile foreign forces” and the use of slogans such as “safeguarding the country’s unity”, the legitimacy of the Chinese government would have come under serious question.

If China is likened to a wooden structure, its pillars (government) and frames (NGOs, businesses) are all laden with borers (corrupt government officials). Now that top managers of the structure intend to replace a few timbers, and some people warn against such a move, saying it would cause the structure to fall apart. This is just unconvincing. Think about it: if a structure would fall apart because a few of its rotten timbers are removed to make way for replacement, then what good would it be to keep the structure? Why not build a new one instead? 

Anti-corruption campaign: short-term actions and long-term considerations

In democratic countries such as the U.S., media, individual citizens and NGOs can all report corruption, which would be settled through legal channels. Yet the situation in China is completely different because in these days, China’s judicial system itself has become extremely corrupt.

Precisely for this reason, the Communist Party (CPC) doesn't trust the prosecution and the judiciary system with the investigation and trial of corruption charges; instead, it often uses its Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to probe such cases.

In the past, the CCDI carried out such probes in a half-hearted manner and no one questioned its function. Nowadays, because of the trust Xi Jinping places in the CCDI and its new and capable boss Wang Qishan, this organ gets a higher status than before and it becomes more serious in discipline inspection. Since last year, the CCDI carried out a number of nationwide inspections, gathered considerable amount of data, got some quite remarkable results in anti-corruption probe.

For this reason, if China wants results in its anti-corruption campaign, it needs to break the campaign down into two steps. First, clamp down on corruption cases that have already taken place. This is exactly what the CCDI has been doing, and I think that in view of China's judiciary system being extremely corrupt, it is okay to use the CCDI as an anti-graft tool.

The second step is to prevent new corruption cases from happening. For this step to become possible, it would take more than the determination of the leaders of this administration because in China, corruption is a systemic problem, and an institutional corruption prevention mechanism has to be in place. The CPC should abandon the current practice of self-inspection and embrace community supervision.

For this to happen, political reform would be needed to allow the existence of other political forces, and the liberalization of media.

Without political reform, graft-taking might be stopped temporarily under Xi Jinping's powerful anti-corruption campaign. It would come back again later on. When that happens, an even worse version of corruption would emerge and it would present a grave political threat to those who are determined to fight corruption.

Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign: limitations

The real limitation of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign is not its scale. Rather, it is whether or not this campaign would also target the princelings, the largest group of people who gained from the privatization of state assets.

At present, Xi Jinping has already swept aside the hidden rule established during the Jiang Zemin era that anti-corruption charges would not fall upon members of the Politburo Standing Committee. However, none of the officials sacked for corruption charges so far are descendant of revolutionaries (members of the Red Families) who helped the CPC come to power. This sort of identity selection undermines the moral standing of the current anti-corruption campaign. Although remarkable results have been achieved, it would be difficult to get the trust of the people. And so long as corrupt members of the Red Families are left untouched, corruption would not be removed from the bureaucracy.

I believe that for the good of the country, the CPC itself and the people of China, the current anti-corruption campaign is necessary, and it should hit even harder. Although I am aware that it would be difficult for the campaign to strike harder, and that it is next to impossible for the CPC to launch a political reform to systemically prevent corruption from happening, I—as a Chinese—still want to express my humble wishes for this country with this article.