A new verdict is in for the high-profile anti-graft campaign launched last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping – and international experts appear unimpressed.
China ranks 100th in this year’s Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International, down from 80th in 2013. The 20-place plunge – one of the largest of any country – suggests that Mr. Xi’s widespread efforts to curb graft within the Chinese government have a long ways to go.
“Grand corruption in big economies not only blocks basic human rights for the poorest but also creates governance problems and instability,” said José Ugaz, chairman of Transparency International. “Fast-growing economies whose governments refuse to be transparent and tolerate corruption, create a culture of impunity in which corruption thrives.”
Despite steady economic growth in China, graft has remained endemic across all levels of the country’s ruling Communist Party for years. So much so that, over the past 18 months, Xi has made weeding out corrupt officials a top priority. Upwards of 2,000 ranking party cadres have been replaced in a massive campaign that has often been tantamount to a soft purge, The Christian Science Monitor’s Robert Marquand reported in October.
Xi’s promise to catch both “the tigers and the flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats – has strongly resonated with the Chinese public. The campaign rarely leaves the news. And, as The Washington Post reports, it “undoubtedly has had an effect on how brazen officials are about flaunting and spending their ill-gotten gains, with a well-documented decline in demand for luxury goods in China.”
So what could explain China’s fall in the corruption index?
For starters, it’s important to keep in mind that the index is based on “perception,” says Tony Saich, a China specialist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
“There has been so much more reported over the last year about the level of corruption in China that I think it just makes people more aware of how deep and institutional it really is,” he says.
Rukshana Nanayakkara, the Asia Pacific outreach manager for Transparency International. told the Post that China's top-down campaign is mainly focused on punishing individuals. Indeed, the country has recognized the need to track officials who hide embezzled money overseas. Earlier this year, leaked documents revealed 22,000 offshore clients from China and Hong Kong, including many party leaders.
While good for public opinion and for providing a short-term deterrent, cracking down on individuals does little to fix systemic problems.
“It’s not dealing with the structural causes of the corruption in the system,” says Mr. Saich, adding that the only way to ensure lasting change is through institutional reform.
The Corruption Perception Index, released late Tuesday, aggregates data from 12 data sources to measure the level of perceived public sector corruption in 175 countries. The index scores each country on a scale of 0 to 100, with zero indicating a “highly corrupt” public sector and 100 indicating a “very clean” one. (Click here to see an interactive map of the index.)
China is one of five countries that saw a drop of four or more points in this year’s index, joining the ranks of Turkey, Angola, Malawi, and Rwanda. Its score fell from 36 to 40. More than two-thirds of the 175 countries scored below 50.
With a score of 92, Denmark ranks as the least corrupt country in the world. North Korea and Somalia share last place, scoring just eight points a piece. As for the United States? It comes in at 17th.