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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 6:31pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

In China's corruption crackdown, a few fallen giants may well be enough

Tim Collard says with its seemingly ambivalent approach to fighting corruption, Beijing is seeking as much to warn senior officials to behave as it is going all out to catch and punish offenders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 4:28am

What are we to make of the mixed signals given by President Xi Jinping's leadership team on official corruption, and the enrichment of officials and their family, either directly at the state's expense or by extortion from business and the public? It was a nettle that Xi seemed keen to grasp at the very outset of his administration, announcing that "tigers" as well as "flies" would be caught up in the inexorable net of the party's disciplinary apparatus.

And it cannot be denied that radical steps have indeed been taken. First was the removal of Bo Xilai from his entrenched position of power; Bo's real crime was challenging the whole style and modus operandi of the leadership rather than corruption, but his family's financial affairs and his wife's bizarre behaviour provided the means of destroying him.

And now we see the forces of justice closing in on Zhou Yongkang and his network of cronies. Meanwhile, senior leaders placed reforming the "work style" of party cadres at the very top of the agenda for last month's National People's Congress session, and the president himself pointedly allowed himself to be seen eating simple food in a simple restaurant, without a champagne glass in sight.

However, this campaign is to be kept within strict bounds. Financial irregularities may only be uncovered by the top echelons of the party, not by ordinary people or - worse still - by foreigners.

When The New York Times was found to be conducting investigations into the mysterious wealth of relatives of Chinese leaders who have remained in good standing at home, their operations in China were severely hampered as a result of official displeasure.

More recently, a row has blown up within the Bloomberg operation, as one of their reporters was prevented by management from continuing his research into a similar story, explicitly because it looked likely to antagonise the Chinese, whose co-operation was needed for Bloomberg's financial information service. This kind of trimming is painful for Americans, but China won't mind that at all.

So is the Chinese government's attitude merely hypocritical? Are they simply using the anti-corruption campaign as an excuse to purge internal enemies, while allowing the favoured few to carry on as ever? I think it is more complicated than that.

Since cadres of officials first emerged during the Tang dynasty, it has always been understood that officials tended to use their positions to enrich both themselves and their dependants; "when a man becomes a minister, even his dogs and his chickens go to heaven", it was said.

Thus, in tackling corruption, the People's Republic has not only human greed but a thousand years of history to contend with. Besides, in those days, those who had been enriched by imperial service could easily be despoiled when they fell from favour; there were no facilities for hiding large amounts of money outside China, as there are now. The game has changed, and a corrupt official is now in a position to finance an independent power base from abroad. This may be what Bo was suspected of doing.

But it is also clear that, even on a much smaller scale, the use of official positions for self-enrichment is disruptive of society, creating perverse incentives. Part of China's banking problem is that some banks are deeply enmeshed with government and party structures, and make lending decisions for non-commercial reasons, resulting in large numbers of non-performing loans and the accumulation of capital in personal bank accounts rather than in the productive economy.

This, though hugely damaging, may appear almost like a victimless crime to the normal Chinese worker; not so the extortionate taxes, fees and other payments which are extracted every day from those trying to operate in a true market, selling things that people want to buy. It is clear that the elimination, or at least the drastic reduction, of official corruption is a real requirement, and that the leadership is genuinely committed to it.

But it is equally committed to ensuring that the party remains in complete control of the reform process.

Thus, the high-level corruption probes into the party's fallen giants might be interpreted as a shot across the bows: we are going to make an example of certain figures, to inspire public confidence and to make it clear what kind of practices we are looking to eradicate. In future, leading party figures must avoid these practices, or we might turn the spotlight on you. So long as that is understood, we are prepared not only to overlook what you may have done before now, but to defend you to the hilt against any outside attempt to reveal uncomfortable truths; for as long as you remain utterly loyal to the central leadership, that is.

And, given that no one really expects total transparency to prevail in China any time soon, this may prove quite a sensible compromise.

Tim Collard is a former UK diplomat specialising in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing


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This article is now closed to comments

China without corruption is like an ocean without water. The more things change, the more they will stay the same.
The cultural root component to corruption makes practice of corruption normal. That is China’s anti-corruption is no less a cultural revolution in the making. Xi and his government should be praised for their sense of difference to expunge what is normal. When they succeed, China will be truly using all its potentials to move the country freely ahead.
I appreciate Mr. Collard's impressive background in China, but I have been going in and out of China since 1993 and I believe he is underestimating both the objective and the confidence and power of President Xi. When you go after the top PRC security Chief for many years in a regime like the PRC, and a separate leading military general, you are going after the "tigers" as Xi predicted. I estimate Xi believes the level of corruption, particularly in the previous party and govt had risen to the point of being a threat to the current and future power of the party and the government and he has the guts to tackle the problem…anyone, and I include the western powers underestimate Mr. Xi at grave risk to themselves. He is not just another leader…he is the major one since Deng Xiaping.
Your analysis is excellent, I was looking for your email to let you know it was appreciated but this forum will have to do.
The cultural root that affects Chinese was equally a part of life in Hong Kong during the colonial days. ICAC was set into current operation after the first failed attempt by its precedent anti-corruption group. But I don’t think ICAC in its present form is a meaningful tool for Hong Kong. Corruption in Hong Kong’s corruption practice has evolved. Government officials and business don’t pass money across each other anymore which is the most primitive way.
Collusion between government and business is the current operation that no money changing hands. We have instead government since colonial time making rules and laws in favor to few individuals in business at the expanse of the rest of the society.
Collusion deepens inequality arousing society with contentions. Even LKS, the individual who benefits most in the collusion practice has taken notice of people’s contention that he openly fighting all back in trying to preserve the familiar system – collusion between the government and business.
ICAC has passed its prime. Its existence is wasting Hong Kong’s money.
All this just further reinforces the fact that China is and always will be rule of man and not rule of law (for what that is worth).
Ten years of Weak Willy Hu Jintao led to the tigers eating more than their share at the trough and it took a strongman like Xi Jinping to start kicking butt and trying to reign it in.
What happens when Xi is gone and another sleaze bag or weak willy gets the seat?
corruption....like stem&rose..inseparable in every part of the world
r.k.seethapathi nayudu


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