Hong Kong's anti-corruption model won't work on mainland China

Sonny Lo says the advocates of a Hong-Kong-style fight against corruption on the mainland misunderstand the nature of the scourge across the border, and the tools available to fight it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 3:05am

Mainland China's anti-corruption campaign has been gathering pace since Xi Jinping became president in March. Members of the Politburo's Standing Committee reportedly voted against a proposal this summer to adopt a Hong-Kong-style amnesty of corrupt officials.

Despite the fact that some China watchers believe the mainland has much to learn from the Hong Kong model of fighting corruption, the reality is that Beijing's approach will remain a far cry from that of Hong Kong.

First and foremost, the amnesty of corrupt Hong Kong police officers, introduced by then governor Murray MacLehose in 1977 soon after a police mutiny in that year, cannot be replicated across the border. Doing so would be tantamount to a slap in the face for the anti-corruption campaign and a contradiction of China's criminal law, according to hardliners in the Politburo.

The ‘protective umbrella’ on the mainland is vast, with complex personal networks

Second, Hong Kong's anti-corruption fight is led by the powerful Independent Commission Against Corruption, but the mainland situation is complicated by the unique institutional design of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. At the provincial and city levels, the anti-corruption fight is constrained by the need to be accountable to the top levels, and most importantly to be answerable to the local party secretary. If the party secretary is somehow involved in corruption, he or she becomes a "protective umbrella" obstructing anti-corruption efforts. The ICAC does not have this problem.

Third, the "protective umbrella" on the mainland is vast, with complex personal networks involving party cadres, officials, businesspeople, land developers and professionals. The recent anti-corruption campaign targeting club memberships, for example, is testimony to the extensive networks of bribery. Unless a Maoist-style education campaign is launched, to teach all citizens the importance of clean government and ethics, it will be difficult to instil these values into the minds of all party cadres and government officials, not to mention ordinary citizens.

In Hong Kong, the ICAC can employ legal measures against any "protective umbrella", which won't be tolerated by the elite or the people.

Fourth, defying conventional wisdom that assumes severe penalties would be imposed on those found guilty of corruption, the reality is that, on the mainland, suspended death sentences often provide an opportunity for offenders to have their sentences reduced later, especially if they show good behaviour in the early stages of imprisonment. At best, some "small tigers" have been executed, as an example. In Hong Kong, those committing corrupt acts face the very real risk of severe punishment; this isn't really the case on the mainland.

Fifth, China is a huge country where central-local relations are extremely complex. While the central government is keen to fight corruption, local officials often bend the rules somewhat and deviate from Beijing's directives. Hong Kong, by contrast, is relatively small; its 18 districts are comparatively easy for the ICAC to monitor. Hence, to argue that the ICAC model could be implanted into the mainland is to ignore the complex central-local relations.

So what can Xi's anti-corruption campaign learn from Hong Kong? The lessons include the need for Beijing to use extensive education as a means to inculcate the values of good and clean government into the psyche of all Chinese people, especially Communist Party officials and cadres.

Moreover, it is imperative for Beijing to review whether court judgments are consistent in all provinces and localities, and whether standardised and tougher measures should be introduced to penalise those found guilty of corruption. If not, the anti-corruption crusade will not achieve a significant breakthrough.

After all, corruption has been the hallmark of dynasties throughout China's history. The crux of the matter is not about eliminating corruption, but containing its further spread and minimising its impact on the legitimacy of the party and government.

Mainland businesspeople and officials working in Hong Kong must learn the importance of ethical behaviour to help further development of the rule of law on the mainland. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection should work closely with the ICAC and its Macau counterpart to educate mainland executives and officials working in the two special administrative regions and instil clean government and administrative ethics into their behaviour.

This could contribute immensely to the development and consolidation of clean government all over China.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education