China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Lacks Credibility

WASHINGTON – There is some similarity between the goal openly stated by the current Chinese Communist Party leadership to fight corruption and Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to modernize and rejuvenate the (crumbling) Soviet Union in the 1980s via a reform campaign centered on perestroika (restructuring), and glasnost(openness).

Reforms from above

The similarity is in the belief that it is possible to reform a corrupt system in which political power is a source of personal privilege and enrichment through a top-down reform program that includes a strong anti-corruption campaign, among other measures.

In both instances the implicit –and dead wrong– assumption seems to be that “the system” is basically fine, except for the strange ailments that have unfortunately attacked it. If this is indeed the case, then you fight the ailments, corruption being the most noticeable, and the system will go back to its vigorous health.

Soviet Union was in horrible shape

Of course, the Soviet union of the 1980s and today’s China are vastly different. The USSR (as we found out) was a truly rotten place on the verge of collapse. Corruption was of course a problem. However, everything else was also a problem. The economy had stopped working. The country had spent almost all of its scarce resources on defense and security. No other sector was healthy. And, sure enough, notwithstanding Gorbachev’s attempt to reform it, the entire fabric of the Soviet Union collapsed just a few years later.

Real economic reforms in China

Today’s China is in much better shape. Pragmatic reforms introduced decades ago allowed new and significant economic freedoms. A brand new private sector could flourish. New industries came to life. And, in the wake of this economic liberalization process, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese started to prosper.

One party state

That said, China’s governance system has not been reformed. It is essentially the same. China is a one party state run by a self-appointed and internally vetted leadership that holds all power, with no external accountability. There are no free elections, no public scrutiny, no free media, and no independent judiciary with the power to investigate and bring charges.

Then what do we make of Xi Jinping’s much publicized campaign to root out the extravagant life style enjoyed by Communist Party leaders at every level? What is the reason behind his equally  open campaign to fight corruption?

Exemplary punishment for just a few?

These days there is a great deal of focus in China on the final destiny of former Party Security Chief Zhou Yongkang. Now retired, while in active life Zhou was one of the most powerful persons in China. At some point he controlled the sale and distribution of large amounts of oil products. This power most likely led to corrupt activities on a vast scale. It would appear that Zhou, his family and scores of associates, benefited from all this. Now there is a major investigation underway.

It would appear that Zhou is guilty. And most likely Zhou will be punished in a very public way, in order to set an example. Still, there is no transparency in the process. The Chinese public has no information about who has been arrested, on what charges, and so on. Some people have been arrested, although not formally charged. Some have literally disappeared. Well, you get the idea. This is how an anti-corruption campaign is managed in a one party state.

There is no doubt that some people who are truly guilty of serious wrong doing will be punished. Still, lacking any transparency and clear laws, all this may be interpreted by many as just an exercise to punish and intimidate political adversaries.

An attempt ro regain legitimacy

I have no idea as to the actual intent of Xi Jinping and his associates in pursuing this anti-corruption campaign. To some extent they seem to be prodded by the fear of losing legitimacy. The Chinese people obviously are aware of extravagant levels of corruption among the unelected elites. At what point would such resentment lead to organized revolt?

Party notables are uncomfortable

That said, any anti-corruption campaign led by secretive investigators who may target some but not others is suspect. Beyond that, as The Financial Times reports, at least some party elders now are really concerned. All this poking around looking for wrong doing is making a lot of notables uncomfortable. Former president Jang Zemin apparently asked the new leaders to slow down this anti-corruption drive.

The reasons for this plea are obvious. Everybody in China’s de facto aristocracy of party leaders and former party leaders took advantage of their positions of power to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies. Which is to say that everybody is guilty, and therefore everybody is a potential target of zealous investigators.

Well, we shall see how all this ends.

Real democracy is the best anti-corruption antidote

Be that as it may, I have little confidence in the intrinsic value of any anti-corruption campaign that treats abuse of power in a one party state as an aberration that must be rectified. Abuse of power is the norm in any autocracy.The root cause is in the monopoly of power; not in the fact that many will take advantage of it. 

If the Chinese leaders were serious about introducing and upholding high standards of integrity and honesty among public officials, then they should seriously study options aimed at transforming China into a real democracy, with free elections, real accountability, free media, an independent judiciary, and all the rest.

How will this end?

For the time being, this looks like a fantasy.

Still, just like Gorbachev, admittedly operating within a much more deteriorated state, Xi Jinping and the new leaders will soon discover that a few public trials against egregious offenders will not cut it.

The public will not be convinced that Party leaders all of a sudden have turned virtuous; while many who do not want their cozy deals scrutinized will put up a fight.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *