A 'moral' spring in India and China

Corruption, along with a strong public reaction to it, is driving the leaders of the world's two biggest countries to shape up. The moral awakening to the need for honesty in governance cannot be reversed.

India and China compete at many levels, from sports to GDP growth. But in recent weeks, the world’s two most populous nations have also been forced to show their own people that they can curb the pervasive corruption that so corrodes their societies.

It’s a contest driven by a newfound public yearning for honesty and transparency in government – and perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring’s demands for accountability from leaders.

China’s long struggle with graft made a big turn July 23 when two high-speed bullet trains collided, killing 40 people. The collision ignited surprising public concern despite the tight one-party controls, in part because a former railway minister had recently been sacked for taking some $122 million in kickbacks.

Officials did admit management “flaws” in running one of the nation’s prestigious projects. And Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged a probe “that will withstand the test of history.” But the media have been silenced in covering the tragedy.

Corruption was clearly put on China’s agenda back in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake killed thousands of children caught in badly constructed school buildings. And after almost every case of mass food poisoning or environmental pollution, cries go up about slippery palms being the likely cause.

China’s presumptive next leader, Vice President Xi Jinping, may have been chosen in part because of his clean reputation. After all, he has written that “transparency is the best anticorrosive.” And just last month, the ruling Communist Party celebrated its 90th anniversary with President Hu Jintao giving a speech whose dominant theme was the party’s need to “resist” corruption.

But too many Chinese still join the party simply to get rich through unfair connections. The party now seems at a loss on how to stem the corruption that threatens China’s economy. In a recent trip to London, the prime minister said the party must allow the people to “supervise and criticize the government ... so as to prevent corruption from developing.” Mr. Wen, however, is not a strong figure in a party struggling to keep its perks and power.

In India, corruption was also the dominant theme in an Independence Day speech by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday. By Tuesday, however, he was on the defensive as India’s most popular antigraft activist, Anna Hazare, was jailed for trying to go on a hunger strike in the capital.

Mr. Hazare’s effort – which resembles Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign for independence from colonial British rule – has attracted widespread support. A telecoms scandal that cost the country some $40 billion was just one of many recent scandals stirring up a popular revolt.

India’s middle class is especially fed up with the effects of graft on daily life and the nation’s reputation, not to mention the drag on the economy. Foreign investment has fallen dramatically in the past year as corruption has become the top concern of most Indians.

Hazare’s last attempt at a hunger strike, in April, did manage to push the government to consider setting up a superagency, called “Jan Lokpal,” or people’s guardian, to investigate corruption. But the measure turned out to be so weak that Hazare and thousands of protesters revived their campaign, with many arrested simply for peacefully demonstrating.

As in China, India’s moral awakening to a need for honesty in governance should not be reversed by official suppression or half measures. These two countries – which together command more than a third of the world’s population – must press ahead with setting a high standard in both government and business dealings. Only then can they both be global leaders.

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