Learn from the West on how to curb graft

Rather than drawing on the anti-corruption heroes of feudal dynasties, the leadership should be focusing on transparency and accountability

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 6:07am

Bao Zheng, a magistrate in Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty more than 1,000 years ago, has been immortalised in Chinese dramas and operas as a symbol of justice and the best known example of an honest and upright official throughout Chinese history.

Portrayed with a black face in opera or drama, he is known not only for his intolerance of injustice and corruption but also for his down-to-earth lifestyle, despite his high government ranking.

According to the legendary tales, he went after the high-ranking officials involved in corruption, used his power to help ordinary people seek justice, and even stood up against the emperor and his relatives, including having one of his son-in-laws executed for murder.

Now the mainland leaders look set to dust off Bao's heroic deeds and draw on the anticorruption practices from China's feudal dynasties to help fight rampant corruption within the Communist Party and the government at all levels.

According to Xinhua, the Politburo held its fifth group study on Friday, inviting two historians to elaborate on how the feudal dynasties dealt with official corruption and promoted clean and honest administration.

President Xi Jinping, presiding over the meeting, said studying China's anti-corruption history and learning from the ancient anti-corruption culture would help promote the cause by using historical wisdom, Xinhua reported.

Unfortunately, the Xinhua report did not mention what historical wisdom and lessons were discussed at the meeting. But it quoted Xi as saying that the core of the anti-corruption struggle was to "always maintain the party's flesh-blood relationship with the people and avoid being isolated from the people".

The report about the study session is both interesting and odd at the same time.

The fact that the mainland leaders are drawing on ancient wisdom shows that they are desperate for effective measures to curb corruption.

Since Xi came to power in November, he has made fighting graft one of his top priorities, playing up the line that the anti-corruption effort concerns the party's survival or demise.

But the effort to seek ancient wisdom has also inadvertently shown that the mainland leadership still lacks political courage to push for genuine political reforms and rule of law to fight corruption.

In a sense, it shows that the mainland leadership still tries to cling to an outdated belief that if an upright and honest official like Bao can prevail in a feudal period, then this can happen in today's society.

Many party officials have argued that learning from the past and educating civil servants on the virtues of being a clean and honest official can help reduce corruption.

In fact, this was what Hu Jintao tried to do when he came to power 10 years ago. Briefly, he tried to push for a rule by virtue by trying to promote a high standard of morality among officials, but that policy failed miserably.

The consensus is, rather, that corruption became much worse during the 10 years of his presidency.

Moreover, while there were a number of upright officials such as Bao in feudal times, the fact remains that so many successions of dynasties in Chinese history, interposed with bloody wars, were usually triggered by corrupt regimes despite the best efforts of the upright officials.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong in learning from the past and promoting morality education for officials.

However, the leaders could find better and more effective ways to curb corruption by learning from other countries.

Improving government transparency and accountability is a proven tool in curbing corruption and the leadership must push ahead with more efforts to reduce the power of officials and promote the rule of law. This would put government operations under the spotlight of public supervision.

It may well be a coincidence but on April 12, both the White House and the Kremlin released the latest updates on the family assets of US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But on the mainland, calls for mainland officials to declare their family assets have been going on for more than 20 years but little progress has been made.

As many Chinese analysts have long argued, the leadership in Beijing could go a long way to curbing corruption by taking the lead in declaring their own family assets.