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China's challenge with corruption

China's leaders have been decrying corruption - and doing very little about it - for decades. But some corruption experts say there may be reason for a little more hope this time around.

By Staff Writer / November 23, 2012

Incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping, shown shortly after his ascension as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party. He has made corruption a top priority.

Vincent Yu/AP/File

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Beijing

Just two years after he founded Communist China, in December 1951, Mao Zedong issued one of his characteristically forthright directives. "We must probably execute 10,000 to tens of thousands of these embezzlers before we solve the problem," he wrote.

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The “problem” was corruption, and 60 years later it has not gone away. As he takes the reins, the newest leader of China’s ruling Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is himself making the issue his number one talking point.

Corruption – perhaps the ordinary Chinese citizen’s single biggest complaint against his rulers – “will inevitably doom the party and the state” unless it is curbed, Mr. Xi warned the first meeting of the newly chosen 25 member Politburo last weekend. “All behavior that violates party discipline or the law should be punished without mercy.”

Turning that talk into action, however, will be a tall order in a country where gift-giving is a pillar of traditional culture, a single political party has a stranglehold on power, and bribery is pervasive from top to bottom of society. Some 668,000 party members have been punished for corruption in the past five years, according to official figures that represent only the tip of the iceberg, experts say.

“Controlling corruption will be a huge challenge for any regime,” says Lu Xiaobo, a professor at Barnard, Columbia, who has written a book about official corruption in China. “Realizing that it’s a problem and making it a priority does not necessarily mean they will be successful” in fighting it.

Reason for hope?

China’s citizenry could be forgiven for being skeptical. Their leaders have been decrying corruption – and doing very little about it – for decades. But some corruption experts here say there may be reason for a little more hope this time.

 “For a long time everything was focused on economic development, and that was the primary task,” says Mao Zhaohui, head of the Anti-Graft Research Center at Beijing’s Renmin University. “That is changing” as other political priorities emerge, he believes.

“Xi Jinping’s approach seems clearer and more systematic,” argues Professor Mao. Though it is too early to judge it, Mao expects Xi to build on his predecessor Hu Jintao’s call at the recent 18th Party Congress for steps “to ensure that the people oversee the exercise of power and that power is exercised in the sunshine.”

At the same time, Wang Qishan, the man chosen to head the Communist Party’s Discipline Inspection Commission, the top anticorruption agency, is a tried and trusted troubleshooter.

“I think Xi Jinping’s comments represent a strategic choice,” says Mao. “The next step is the biggest obstacle – putting it into practice.”

The next step

The most likely first step, most corruption watchers here agree, is some kind of “sunshine law” obliging officials to declare their income and assets, although it is unclear how credibly such declarations might be verified. Three very senior officials, including Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the party’s Standing Committee, its top body, have said they are ready to declare their wealth.

The government might also choose to grant more freedom to individual corruption-busters on the Web, imposing lighter censorship on their efforts to unmask dishonest officials.

Earlier this year, unofficial online detectives scoured the Web for photos of Yang Dacai, a provincial work safety official in Shaanxi, was fired and put under investigation for corruption when Internet users found pictures showing him with a suspicious number of luxury watches.

That incident “gave me hope that the rise of social media will unveil corruption,” says Professor Lu, though he cautions that even if it does, “they would not allow this for senior officials.”

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