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Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping was elected General Secretary of the Chinese Communisty Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, replacing Hu Jintao as the top leader of the Communist Party. Xi was elected President in March 2013. Born in 1953, Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a veteran leader of the Party. He graduated from Tsinghua University in 1979 with a degree in engineering.

 

CommentInsight & Opinion

What Xi Jinping must do to root out corruption

Steve Tsang says two things stand in the way of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive – the party's absolute power and the endemic exploitation by leaders' relatives of their position for personal gain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2013, 12:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 9:04am

Upon his promotion to the post of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore the leader of China, Xi Jinping declared that one of his top priorities was to tackle corruption. This is welcome indeed. But his pronouncement lacks credibility.

It is not because Xi is seen as personally corrupt. Even the penetrating Bloomberg report last year, which detailed the vast wealth his family members had amassed, did not suggest Xi was himself corrupt.

In parallel, The New York Times provided a more recent damning report that documented the phenomenal wealth Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members have built up during his time in office. This piece of impressive investigative journalism also highlighted that it came across no evidence to suggest Wen himself had been on the take. I don’t believe either Xi or Wen is personally corrupt.

Why, then, is Xi’s commitment to eliminate corruption unconvincing?

There are two basic reasons. Neither has anything to do with China’s tradition, heritage or genetics. Hong Kong has proved that, even without democracy, its Chinese population has been completely able to tackle corruption successfully. Hong Kong’s experience should be highly inspirational to the rest of China.

The first basic reason is the political system. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Leninist political system in place in China, albeit softened since the Dengist reforms to become a consultative variant, remains the most powerful or absolutist political system ever installed by mankind. There are no checks and balances against the party’s monopoly of power.

The near absolute power of the party is indeed pivotal to the political reality in China. For all the delegation of power to the regions and the arrogant assertiveness of provincial party secretaries, the party central can enforce almost any policy it deems essential to sustain the party’s continued hold on power. The only exception is in the mission to eradicate corruption, which is widely recognised as threatening the survival of the party.

The second basic factor is the fact that family members of top leaders routinely exploit their privileged positions for personal gain. This has become endemic whatever individual top leaders themselves think of corruption. This is why the Bloomberg and New York Times reports are important and illuminating.

The situation in mainland China today makes a striking contrast to the despicable situation that prevailed in Hong Kong at the start of the 1970s. In those days, syndicated corruption was so entrenched and corrosive that even life-saving public services such as firefighting could not be expected to be delivered without a bribe being paid first.

Once a particularly flagrant case – concerning the corruption of police chief superintendent Peter Godber – caught the imagination of the community, the Hong Kong government galvanised itself into action. In less than 10 years, it not only ended syndicated corruption but also instilled a new public ethos.

Since then, the people of Hong Kong, of Chinese stock or not, deem corruption as something beneath them, even though corruption by individuals still exists surreptitiously.

Why can the Hong Kong experience not be replicated on the mainland? It is because the two basic problems that plague China today did not exist in late colonial Hong Kong.

To begin with, the colonial government did not enjoy anything like absolute power. On the contrary, the British knew that colonial rule could only be sustained if it proved less objectionable than the obvious alternative, which was the return of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction. Corruption in late colonial Hong Kong might have been highly organised, but it was not systemic. For all the alleged reach of the syndicates in Hong Kong, it never got close to the top or relatives of top-level officials.

When governor Murray MacLehose realised that the credibility of the colonial government was at stake and acted, he faced no resistance from the top echelons. He also did not need to worry about having to send any relative to jail as part of his anti-corruption drive.

The relative comfort MacLehose enjoyed is not available to Xi. Ending the party’s monopoly of power may be above Xi’s pay grade, as the Politburo as a whole is not ready to do so. But he can still make a real impact without democratisation. Taking on his relatives is something he can do if he is so minded.

Until Xi makes a genuinely dramatic gesture, his anti-corruption drive will not be taken seriously.

The reality in China today is that even if Xi’s relatives do not ask for bribes, they will still find a stream of expensive gifts going their way. Unless they vigorously refuse and report all cases to Xi so that those who attempt to bribe are punished, this will not stop.

Until Xi is willing to jail his relatives or require them to report their friends who bribe them and send them to jail, his anti-corruption campaign will be interpreted in a cynical way. It will be taken by those in authority as a requirement that they should not flaunt their ill-gotten gains, and a few will be sacrificed to enable the party to claim successes.

To make his anti-corruption drive credible, Xi must take dramatic and drastic action that catches the imagination of the cadres and the general public. Nothing less will do.

Steve Tsang is professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham

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crbfile
personally, I think a better first start would be to make bribery a corporate civil offense, not an individual criminal offense for the briber. let that run for a while.
kiwichinagirl
Glad to see this summarized, and the challenge laid. The greatest challenge may lie that, I believe a charge of corruption may lead to the death penalty in China. While parents have been seen to jail their children, very few would be willing to let them go to death.
Perhaps if greater support is given to Amnesty Intl efforts to remove the death penalty first (great strides in reductions have apparently been made), this could pave the way for more rooting out of corruption, at all levels.
Michael Lee
Hi Steve,
I wonder if you can start a more quantitative analysis by defining corruption (with Chinese characteristics) and comparing the incomes of the different professions in China?
Remitting Prosperity
The snag about the present system is that an official can only be investigated by another official of higher rank, so the further up you are, the less likely you are to meet any check on your power. Until there is a genuinely independent anti-corruption body with real powers, corruption will continue. Indeed it will probably get worse as the upper echelons realise that they only have so much time to make their fortunes and get them and their families out of the country before the balloon goes up.
kimthuong.phan.31
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John Adams
Steven : in over 25 years of business in China I have witnessed immense changes for the good. But one thing leaves me profoundly depresses, which is CORRUPTION .
Thanks for this well-thought op-ed. I agree 10,000%
newgalileo
As I read recently, China is using "State Monopolistic Capitalism" and that is one of the worst systems. Steve Yang is overall (too) correct in his analysis – hence the huge challenge for Xi. The new team should learn from the NYT and Bloomberg investigations, not react the way they do. As I wrote in my book, what China needs is an "ICAC". Way to go...
xiaoblueleaf
One of factors HK eradicated "organized" corruption, among many such as ICAC, was to raise salaries and benefits of civil servants, police, firefighters etc. to a level that they are able to live comfortably well above the "poverty" line; thus attracting better motivated while taking away the basic instinct of accepting bribes. Corruption then becomes the exception rather than the rule which is the opposite in China today - e.g. hospital doctors depending on commissions from prescribing drug, test and surgery to supplement their meager salaries.

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