China's resolve to root out corruption must not flag

Hu Shuli says the government must not give in to voices of caution. Without controlling graft, the reforms it seeks will get nowhere

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 2:26am

Since assuming power, China's new leadership has focused on curbing official excess, enforcing discipline and combating corruption. Its latest crackdown on graft, especially, has been the fiercest and most sustained since reforms began over three decades ago.

The campaign has overwhelming public support. But how long will it last? Regular Chinese are asking the question; so, too, are corrupt officials whose misdeeds have not yet been exposed. Meanwhile, criticisms of the campaign are starting to emerge.

It was against this backdrop that Wang Qishan, party secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the anti-graft watchdog, instructed departments at party headquarters and ministries to resolutely punish corrupt officials, especially those who persist in their wrongdoing.

We couldn't agree more. Now's not the time to loosen the grip. The authorities must keep the campaign high-pressure and high-profile - this is the best way to clear obstacles to comprehensive reforms.

The economic and social causes of corruption in China are complex. Eradicating it is not easy. Nonetheless, recent success in taking down both the "tigers" and the "flies" (high-ranking and low-level officials) has boosted confidence and given the public hope.

The latest crackdown is notable in several ways.

First, the authorities are coming down hard. According to the website of the discipline commission, 285 senior officials were reported for misconduct over a period of 500 days - an average of four reports a week. In the first 15 days of this month alone, more than 40 deputy directors and officers of similar rank were investigated.

Second, more senior officials have been caught. Among them have been security vice-minister Li Dongsheng and Shen Weichen , party secretary of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. More will follow.

Third, there's more transparency. Arrests are generally reported by the media the very next day.

Fourth, more doors for reporting corruption have been opened. The discipline commission hosts an online reporting service while China's new media has also played a significant role.

Most encouragingly, the campaign started strong and did not flag, contrary to some expectations.

Incredibly, despite the public support for the crackdown, some apologists are again singing the broken tune that corruption helps to get around the red tape in a developing economy. Yet others said the crackdown would weaken consumer demand and further retard growth, thus affecting employment and social stability.

A report by a notable international financial institution even estimated that China's anti-corruption drive would shave 0.6 to 1.5 percentage points off its gross domestic product, and cost the economy up to US$135 billion.

But it is a fact that corruption harms the economy in the long run: it raises transaction costs, undermines public order and weakens entrepreneurship. While corruption does push up the sales and prices of real estate, fine dining, jewellery and luxury cars - not to mention the boost it gives to the sex industry - this "irrational exuberance" is a bubble that is bound to burst. In fact, the economy will be the better for it. And if there really is a price to pay, the Chinese people who have had enough of corruption and the businessmen who have long been exploited by corrupt officials would be glad to pay it to rid themselves of the scourge.

The central leadership has accomplished two feats since it took over: its decision to implement comprehensive reforms, and its dogged fight to root out corruption. One complements the other: reforms involves a fundamental restructuring of relations between social groups, and that inevitably encroaches on the turf of corrupt vested interests. It's the reason resistance to administrative reforms has been so fierce. But people who support reform must also back the fight against corruption. Without rooting out the rot, reform will get nowhere.

Much now depends on the resolve of the top leadership. Beyond netting corrupt officials, the government must soon turn its attention to improving the institutions to prevent corruption. This will require it to strike a balance between centralisation and autonomy, and between administrative power and judicial authority. It must also equip the judiciary with the right tools so corruption can be tackled through normal procedures.

This is a job for the long term. For now, it can do two things. One, it can promote greater disclosure of information, allowing the media to freely report on corruption and abuses of power. Two, it should protect the legal rights of lawyers and defendants, and adhere to the procedures spelled out in the Criminal Procedure Law.

Whether or not the anti-corruption campaign succeeds will ultimately depend on the strength of China's rule of law.

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