As graft crackdown grinds on, scepticism persists

Xi's government needs to reassure public that corruption campaign will have lasting results

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 4:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 9:19am

A short Xinhua news item about the transfer of a mid-level Communist Party official raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging in mainland political circles last week. Jiang Sixian - the party secretary of Sanya, a small but strategically key city on the southern tip of Hainan - was appointed party chief of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

On its face, the move might not seem controversial. The new job at the prestigious university would preserve Jiang's vice-ministerial ranking in the government hierarchy.

But many saw the transfer as the beginning of the end for a once-promising career. A university chief, after all, has less power and fewer opportunities for advancement.

The move was surprising because Jiang, 59, has been considered a rising star with close connections to the "Shanghai gang", the party clique dominated by former president Jiang Zemin .

One potential explanation for the apparent sidelining of Jiang Sixian may have emerged the next day when the party's Central Committee released revised rules governing the promotions of cadres. They for the first time excluded promotion of so-called "naked officials", or cadres whose spouses and children have emigrated.

Jiang might have been the first casualty of the new rules as his wife is believed to have secured permanent residency in Hong Kong, where his daughter also works.

The naked official phenomenon has become a national cause for concern in recent years, with many officials - some of them corrupt - sending their close family members to Hong Kong or locations overseas. The United States and Australia are among the most popular destinations.

Stories about the luxurious lives that the families of these officials enjoy - the big houses and the expensive cars - have deeply embarrassed Beijing as they send a clear signal of the lack of confidence in the government and the system.

The new rules also appeared aimed at preventing mainland officials from using their power and influence to help their family members land high-paid jobs at overseas companies, which are more than willing to use the favour as leverage to win lucrative contracts.

Indeed, it's common knowledge that major investment banks have tried hard to hire the children and spouses of senior mainland officials, offering attractive compensation packages, primarily for the family connections they can bring.

Numerous media outlets have reported that United States authorities are investigating several major American banks to determine if they broke US laws against overseas bribery.

There are already signs that mainland officials have started to push their family members to leave such foreign companies and move to mainland firms.

But it remains to be seen whether the new rules will truly deter officials as the temptation of foreign residency and lucrative jobs with overseas companies is too strong to ignore. In addition, the rules appear to apply only to the incumbent officials - family members of retired officials can still take up cushy jobs at overseas firms.

More importantly, whether the new rules can be effectively enforced over the long term is another question. Mainland authorities are well known for launching campaigns to tackle serious problems that bring short-term results. But the reality is that the problems often return after the campaigns end.

Thus, there have understandably been many questions over what lasting changes President Xi Jinping will achieve with his anti-corruption campaign.

The central government has over the past year issued some 15 regulations targeting public corruption and extravagance, according to mainland media reports. Lavish banquets have been banned, as well sending gift cards, building new office buildings, sponsoring galas and purchasing new cars. They have prohibited officials from joining private clubs, smoking in public places and having lavish weddings and funerals.

More than 90 per cent of 100 low-level civil servants recently surveyed by The Beijing News said their benefits had dwindled and their jobs have grown harder over the past year. They complained the rules were too strict, with some grass-roots cadres suggesting they could consider quitting the jobs as their grey revenues dried up.

The government insists it has no plans to lower the heat. The People's Daily ran commentaries three days in a row trumpeting the line that the easy days of being a civil servant were over.

Mainlanders who have seen so many such campaigns over the years can be forgiven for wondering if old habits would return to normal after this one subsides.

Wang Qishan , the country's top anti-graft official, admitted that his first priority was to find a way to contain the rampant corruption and gain enough time and experience to come up with a more effective long-term approach.

Achieving that goal means that the authorities must take effective measures to increase accountability and transparency and promote the rule of law. To paraphrase one of Xi's favourite slogans: power should be put in a cage. On that score, the government's success is unclear. The bureaucrats are still putting up a strong resistance.