Can China turn a moral corner?

The ruling party’s use of fear to deter corruption may be shifting toward positive ways to instill honesty in governance.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for a session of the National People's Congress in Beijing March 12.

As nations from Russia to Brazil try to deal with popular resentment against corruption, they should take note of China’s anti-corruption campaign. Since 2012, the ruling Communist Party has relied heavily on the fear of punishment in a campaign to curb widespread graft. More than 100,000 party or government officials have been disciplined or jailed. Yet as Chinese officials admit, fear is not enough.

Last year, the number of prosecutions for corruption in China began to decline. This is seen as a sign that the party wants to move from purifying its 87 million members to what President Xi Jinping calls improving the “working style” of the party. To achieve clean governance, more Chinese officials will need to embrace qualities such as honesty, transparency, and service.

Mr. Xi has often said corruption is the “greatest threat” to China and its need for reform of a slowing economy, which is now the world’s second largest. Yet beyond preventing corruption by individuals, the next step for the party is to reform entire departments. And nothing is more basic to the official handling of the economy than honesty in economic statistics.

In telling change of course on June 11, the party’s internal anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), issued a criticism of fake data from two provinces, Jilin and Inner Mongolia. In the past, such fingering of falsified statistics came from the government’s Bureau of Statistics. But the party is now taking the lead in ensuring truthful data.

CCDI has also begun to turn its attention to the finance sector, hoping to bring about better governance to an industry critical to economic reform – and to attracting foreign investment. The powerful CCDI leader, Wang Qishan, hopes China can turn a corner from merely deterring wrongdoing with fear to encouraging officials to do the right thing by their own impetus.

If China can achieve this transition in moral development, it will be a genuine cultural revolution. And perhaps a model for other countries still struggling with corruption.

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