Corruption in China may appear to get worse before it gets better

Dan Hough says despite maintaining its ranking in a corruption perception index, China should brace for a probable slide, given all the attention on its anti-graft drive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 4:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 4:43am

This week saw the world's most prominent anti-corruption non-governmental organisation, the Berlin-based Transparency International, publish its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, the group's best-known attempt to measure perceived levels of corruption around the world.

As usual, it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to work out which countries received the best and worst scores. The Nordic states performed admirably, with Denmark scoring 91 (out of a maximum of 100) indicating that it is - according to this measure at least - "the least corrupt country" in the world (alongside, to be fair, New Zealand). Sweden and Finland were, however, not far behind, registering an eminently respectable 89 in joint third place.

At the bottom, it was a familiar tale of woe for Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia which all ended up 175th (and last) with a meagre eight out of 100. The story wasn't much more encouraging for Sudan (11), Libya (15) or Iraq (16), all of whom clearly have deeply ingrained corruption challenges to deal with.

The index is, of course, not without its critics. Indeed, many scholars write the table off as being fit for nothing more than discussions at middle-class dinner parties. Methodologically problematic though the data undoubtedly is, the figures nonetheless get noticed by both governments and commentators. Going up or down in the table will, in other words, be noted. One suspects that applies to officials in Beijing just as much as those elsewhere.

The 2013 index, nonetheless, won't make awfully pretty reading for Chinese bureaucrats. In 2012, China ranked 80th with a score of 39. So, above halfway in terms of the rank order of countries, but well below the significant score of 50 that, according to Transparency International, signifies that a state has systemic corruption challenges. In 2013, China actually fared marginally better, remaining in 80th place overall but improving its score marginally to 40. And that despite the high-profile anti-corruption drive launched by President Xi Jinping in recent months. The picture, in other words, still does not look great.

We should, however, be a little careful before concluding (from this data at least) that the current anti-corruption campaign is not really bearing fruit. The drive might well be going nowhere fast, but that's not a conclusion we can yet draw with any certainty. The very fact that corruption has risen to the top of the political agenda in Beijing means that more and more media commentators are talking about it.

There are regular revelations of often quite brazen corrupt practices and a significant number of high-ranking officials have lost their jobs (not to mention their liberty) as their activities have been revealed. That, however, does not mean more officials are actually acting in a corrupt fashion - it could simply mean that more seem to be getting caught.

Evidence of this sort of trend exists elsewhere, and in some ways the 2013 data can be interpreted as offering at least a grain of comfort to party officials in Beijing.

Britain polled scores of 86 and 87 (11th and 10th positions) for the period from 2002 to 2006, but slipped significantly, scoring 77 in 2008 and 2009, and then 76 in 2010 (20th position). Only this year did it begin to recover in terms of ranking - 76 and 14th position overall. There may, of course, have been a significant rise in the amount of corruption evident in the UK in the late 2000s that could explain the poor performance.

More plausible, however, is that Britons thought there was more corruption about, largely on the basis of the unearthing of a large scandal involving the expense accounts of British parliamentarians.

The sums of money involved were, in the great scheme of things, relatively small, but the impression left was one of snouts well and truly in the trough. So, did corruption in Britain really get worse during this period? It could conceivably have done, but it is exceptionally unlikely that the data in the index was actually measuring that.

China - with its examples of high-profile corruption appearing very regularly in the news - appears to have avoided a similar fate. The talk of fighting both "tigers" and "flies" is admirable, but actually achieving change will take time - if indeed it ever happens at all - and it will, in all likelihood, involve an increased perception of corruption before things get better. Evidence of this cannot be found in the 2013 index, but it may well begin to appear in 2014 and 2015. Come what may, achieving substantive change takes time, and patience and stamina are much more important in the long run than going up or down in indices like this one.

Professor Dan Hough is director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, UK