Liaoning vote-buying scandal points to rot in China’s system
Dan Hough says Chinese lawmakers are left in a curious position where the exchange of money for political favours is seen as integral to the power ‘game’ but those involved leave themselves open to corruption crackdowns
Mainland China is not the type of place where you’d necessarily expect to find too many incidences of electoral fraud. It doesn’t, after all, have popular elections. It does, nonetheless, see behind-the-scenes manoeuvring for nominations to prestigious public positions.
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In other words, many representatives of China’s 2,852 counties want to move on and become part of one of the bodies that nominally run the affairs of the country’s 334 prefectures. Those active at prefecture-level may well have their eye on a place in the bodies that run one of the 34 province-level legislatures. To make that jump, representatives at each level are tasked with electing some of their own to the level above. This pyramid structure works right from bottom to the top of the Chinese governance structure. On paper, all clear enough.
In practice, there are two real issues with how the system works. First, there are exceptions to this process and people regularly get parachuted in to these bodies.
Second, quite how representatives go about winning these contests is, to the outsider at least, anything but clear. The winners are nominated, but only after a prolonged process of politicking in the background. That may well involve paying influential power brokers to get your name put forward.
That the legislatures at all these levels have little genuine power is not the point. It’s not so much about public service, more that you are seen to be making progress in your career and mixing with (and having access to) the rich and powerful. It’s for that reason representatives will often try very hard to get themselves nominated. Sometimes too hard. In 2013, in Hengyang (衡陽), Hunan (湖南) province, 518 out of 527 legislators were unceremoniously sacked from their positions after it became clear they had bribed their way into them. The total amount of bribes paid exceeded 110 million yuan (HK$126.9 million).
Similar forms of skulduggery were revealed this month when as many as 523 deputies to the Liaoning (遼寧) Provincial People’s Congress found themselves implicated in electoral fraud. All have now either resigned or been disqualified. Forty-five lawmakers from Liaoning have also been sacked from the National People’s Congress after allegedly being implicated in the vote-buying scandal.
Liaoning effectively now finds itself without a government. No less than 38 of the 62 members of what was previously the provincial standing committee are among the 523 who have stepped aside. In words that show understatement is not just a preserve of the English language, Xinhua was quoted as saying that the situation was unprecedented in China and “warrants a creative institutional arrangement”.
This, however, is not a simple case of bribery on steroids. The process of making financial contributions to get nominated to higher positions is believed to be common on the mainland. The details are often sketchy and the transactions are done away from prying eyes. But they are done nonetheless.
That the informal norms are widely understood doesn’t mean they are in line with the law. They aren’t. Hence members of these bodies are in an odd position. They are at once expected to bribe and expected not to bribe. If they “play the game”, then it won’t be long before they have to start spending money but, by doing that, they leave themselves open to accusations of corruption. In a situation where tens of thousands have been prosecuted for corruption offences, that can be a dangerous place to be.
The point is not to defend those implicated in this case. For one thing, the actual details of what happened are hazy. But it is worth acknowledging that President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) anti-corruption drive is making a big play of rooting out bad apples. And it is Xi and his close circle who do the defining of terms. The problem comes when the norms that underpin a system are in direct contradiction with the law that apparently shapes it. Dealing with that problem will require more than simply putting more people in prison for doing what many believe is part and parcel of the way the process works.
Professor Dan Hough is a professor of politics and director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex in Britain