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Bo Xilai trial shows China's Communist Party is best bet against corruption

China critics say severe corruption is inherent to China’s one-party system and cannot be stemmed without changing the entire political system. The trail of Bo Xilai – the climax of an aggressive anti-corruption drive by the Chinese Communist Party – shows this isn't the case.

By Eric X. LiOp-ed contributor / August 19, 2013

Bo Xilai, then Chongqing party secretary, puts on his glasses during a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, last year. Disgraced Chinese politician Bo goes on trial Aug. 22, on corruption charges in a case crafted to minimize damage to the Communist Party and avoid exposure of party infighting or human rights abuses.

Andy Wong/AP/File

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At last, Bo Xilai is going on trial. The case against China's former Politburo member brings to a climax the aggressive anti-corruption drive undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, the new general secretary, Xi Jinping, has identified corruption as a threat to the very survival of the party-state. Some political commentators have proclaimed that severe corruption is inherent to China’s one-party system and cannot be contained without anything short of changing the entire political system. Perhaps it is time to examine corruption in the larger historic and intellectual context.

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Corruption, in its contemporary form, has been a subject of global attention and scholarship over the last 20 years. Before that, the cold war shielded rampant corruption behind ideologies. Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Indonesia's President Suharto were corrupt but protected by the Western alliance, and the same happened on the other side. Since then the amount of research and literature on the topic has been vast. So what have we learned?

First, a global consensus on corruption was formed, without much empirical data, very early in this 20-year period. The consensus went as follows: Corruption happens because of incomplete economic liberalization, lack of political competition, no independent judiciary, no freedom of the press, and a weak civil society. Furthermore, standardized measurement systems were developed to produce single-dimension indexes where corruption is, for the most part, equated with illegal bribery. According to such indexes, corruption is qualitatively the same across all countries and varies only in quantity.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is the most authoritative among such indexes. Since the root causes are the same everywhere and the severity of the problem can be accurately measured, it was only natural to conclude that there was a standardized prescription, namely economic liberalization (i.e., privatization), political opening (i.e. multi-party elections), independent judiciary, press freedom, and civil society. Professor Michael Johnston summarizes this development in his book “Syndromes of Corruption.”

A myriad of “how-to” books were issued by respected institutions, such as USAID’s “Handbook for Fighting Corruption,” the World Bank’s “Helping Countries Combat Corruption” and the UN Development Program’s “Corruption and Good Governance.” There is only one problem with these “how-to” books: They don’t quite work.

Take the example of Indonesia. After 40 years of severe corruption during the Sukarno-Suharto eras, the country began to implement all the prescriptions in the “how-to” books in 1998. More than 60 political parties were formed to compete in elections, the press was set free, judges became independent, and companies were privatized. Yet, just about every study has shown corruption has gotten worse. In the words of Professor Andrew MacIntyre, Indonesia went from “one Suharto to hundreds of little Suhartos.” Examples like this abound, particularly in the developing world.

In recent years, many scholars have begun to re-examine the dominant consensus. The academic world has learned that corruption is a complex, multidimensional, and multifaceted phenomenon. Furthermore, corruption and its effects vary qualitatively across different places and are nearly impossible to measure, as research has shown.

The most commonly accepted definition of corruption is the abuse of public trust for private benefits. The most important two words are “public” and “private.” However, the distinction between public and private varies considerably between stable and transitioning economies. In the developed West, clear boundaries between public and private properties have been defined for decades or even centuries. In a rapidly transitioning economy like China, the line is constantly shifting. What is public today could become private tomorrow. It is very difficult to define corruption and to measure it. In a stable economy, even a small quantity of corruption can be very damaging, whereas in a transitioning economy the effects are much less certain.

Corruption is also multidimensional and takes many shapes. One example is what Mr. Johnston refers to as “influence market corruption” – particularly rampant in developed democracies. It is corruption that has been legalized (i.e., rule of law co-opted) in the forms of political contributions, special-interests lobbying, and revolving doors.

The United States, for example, ranks very high in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – meaning low level of corruption. But the American people seem to disagree. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say elected officials are influenced by financial contributors, and only 19 percent say officials are led by the best interests of the country (Gallup); 59 percent of Americans say elections are for sale, and 37 percent believe they are won by the best candidates (Gallup); 70 percent of Americans say the political system is controlled by special interests and not responsive to the country’s real needs (Newsweek); and 93 percent of Americans say politicians do special favors for campaign contributors (ABC News/Washington Post).

Under normal circumstances one would say such numbers represent rather wide perception of severe corruption. Yet they are never counted in any of the ranking systems because these acts are legal.

Now let’s consider the case of China. Corruption is not new. Every dynasty suffered from it. But the root causes of Chinese corruption are rather unique. One of them is embedded in the DNA of the Confucian Mandarin class – shi da fu – the centuries-old non-hereditary and meritocratic ruling bureaucracy. The shi da fu class is defined by its moral claim that Mandarins should be selflessly devoted to the people, as Fan Zhongyan stated, “first in worrying about the world’s troubles and last in enjoying its pleasures.”

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