Don't let sex scandals distract from the bigger fight against corruption

Hu Shuli says Chinese investigators must expose the links between sexual transgressions and corrupt dealings, which remain the target

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 5:39am

A string of sex scandals has brought down a number of Chinese officials recently. Such is the technology today that the photos, videos and salacious details about the affairs spread quickly once they are posted online. The authorities were quick to react, sacking a number of senior party cadres and executives at state-owned companies. There's probably more to come.

The crackdown on misbehaving officials - part of the anti-corruption drive that has gathered speed after the 18th party congress - targets the symptoms but not the causes of corruption. Even so, the government must be thorough in its investigation into these and other related crimes, no matter how high up they reach in the hierarchy, and hold all guilty parties responsible.

When announcing the dismissal of officials, the government said "problems with their lifestyle" had made them unfit for their job. We ask that investigators do not stop at these "lifestyle problems".

This demand has a basis in law. China's system of public service differs from that elsewhere. Article 2 of its Law on Public Servants defines public servants as "workers who perform official duties according to law, are members of the administrative establishment of the state, and whose salaries and welfare benefits are paid by the government".

Mature jurisdictions make a distinction between executive and administrative officers. But in China, they are all public servants, along with members of the judiciary. Chinese law does differentiate leading posts from non-leading posts, but both operate within the same framework.

In short, while in other countries executive officers are different from civil servants, in China they are the same. The sex scandals must be seen in this context.

In these other countries, the private lives of civil servants are generally of little public interest. The private lives of politicians, however, draw considerably more interest, but much also depends on the culture in question. For example, voters in Protestant America expect much higher standards of sexual morality from their politicians than voters in Europe do. But there are limits even in the US: the attempt to impeach president Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, for example, hinged not on his infidelity but on the charge that he had lied under oath.

The bottom line in these societies is: officials' private behaviour must not compromise their public duty.

The Chinese officials implicated in the sex scandals were roughly the equivalent of executive officers, and it is only right that their private lives were more closely scrutinised. But here, too, the bottom line must be: how had their private behaviour affected the discharge of their public duty?

We get no answer to this in the official explanation of their dismissal. How exactly had their "lifestyle problems" made them "unfit for their current public duty"? The statement does not explain. Under the Law on Public Servants, they were probably dismissed for "committing other acts in violation of rules of discipline" (Article 53), but that does not tell us much either.

Given the enormity of China's challenge to curb corruption and shore up its rule of law, it is critical that the reasons for officials' sackings be made clear. How and to what extent has their philandering affected their public role? There must be a link, and this link must be spelled out. In cases where officials were said to have paid their mistresses to keep quiet, for instance, investigators must track the source of the money.

The exposure of sexual immorality has boosted the campaign against corruption. But it must be said that such misbehaviour has a much less direct link with corruption than in some other cases, where officials' ill-gotten gains were unwittingly exposed after a break-in at their house or through an abduction. While it's true that many corrupt officials kept mistresses, their honest colleagues may also have strayed. Social traditions and party rules regulate sexual behaviour, but the law should have little to do with it.

True, the illegal transactions of power, sex and money are not to be tolerated, and even if no money changed hands, the trading of power and sex deserves censure. Similarly, laws against prostitution and the keeping of mistresses should also be upheld.

However, although officials should be subject to greater public scrutiny than ordinary citizens, they are entitled to some privacy. This is their human right, and it should be respected. Otherwise, we can be sure more photos and videos will appear online, given the public appetite for scandal. Unscrupulous opponents may also use these scandals to gain an advantage in power struggles.

The lively online campaign to expose corrupt officials reflects people's frustration and disgust with corruption, and their desperate hope for clean government. This civic participation is commendable, but not enough.

In the long run, China needs to nurture a strong, independent media that can conduct objective, in-depth investigation of public misdeeds. This will help to strengthen the rule of law, and the media's role as a public watchdog. It will also help enlarge the space for open, rational public debate.

By treating the symptoms of corruption, China may buy time to tackle the root causes. The fight against corruption must be part of China's fundamental reform.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.