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.
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.”
But, “relying on the public and on the media will not stop corruption,” argues Ren Jianmin, deputy head of the Chinese chapter of Transparency International, the anticorruption watchdog. The initiative must come from the top, he says, and he was encouraged to hear Xi say last week that “to forge iron, one must be strong.”
“By that he meant that top officials should set a good, clean example,” Professor Ren says.
Bloomberg News published a lengthy investigative report earlier this year showing that Xi’s relatives controlled assets, including real estate, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, though it found no evidence of any wrongdoing by Xi himself.
“If we see Xi’s family really get out of business, that would be a good first step,” suggests Ren. “If Xi cannot take actions himself … this anticorruption campaign will go nowhere, and people will lose faith in their leaders.”
A good example from the top, however, is insufficient, he says. “The [Communist] Party rules everything,” he points out. “I do not know if that will change. But I do know there are a lot of problems that cannot be solved while the party’s power is limitless and above state power.”
China’s existing anticorruption agencies
China has no shortage of anticorruption agencies: The Communist Party has its Discipline Inspection Commission, with branches down to local level, while the government hierarchy includes a Ministry of Supervision, a State Bureau of Corruption Prevention, an Anti-Corruption Bureau and a Career Crime Prevention Bureau.
They are all “paper tigers,” complains Ren. Their bureaucrats can investigate nothing without prior permission from the communist leadership.
An indication of how ineffectual the system is can be found in the fact that Yang Dacai, who became known as the “watch brother” because of his extensive collection of watches he could not afford on his salary, was himself a member of the Shaanxi provincial Discipline Inspection Commission, tasked with rooting out corruption.
“The most important thing that needs doing is to set up an independent anticorruption agency with sufficient authority, which would be a real tiger,” argues Ren, pointing to the experience of Singapore and Hong Kong, which have established such bodies.
They are now No. 4 and No. 12 respectively in Transparency International’s ranking of “corruption perceptions” in 183 countries. China is No. 75.
The government relies on itself to control itself
Few observers expect the Chinese government to set up a genuinely independent investigative agency that would threaten its’ members financial interests any time soon.
“The problem is that the government relies on itself” to control itself, Lu points out. “That’s the nature of the regime. They are reluctant to let any nongovernmental group play a watchdog role.”
That attitude makes the development of an independent judiciary unlikely too, Lu fears. “And without larger, broader institutional reform, corruption is going to remain as bad as it is,” he predicts.
Signs of such broad reform are few and far between at the moment, but some analysts say it is inevitable.
“Without more democratic institutions as insurance, anti-corruption measures cannot be enforced,” insists Jiang Dahai, who teaches law at the East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai. The authorities will have to move in that direction, he believes, “because the traditional ways of fighting corruption in the past have led only to it getting worse.
“The damage done by not reforming is much worse than the risk of reform,” he says.