Upon his promotion to the post of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore the leader of China, Xi Jinping declared that one of his top priorities was to tackle corruption. This is welcome indeed. But his pronouncement lacks credibility.
It is not because Xi is seen as personally corrupt. Even the penetrating Bloomberg report last year, which detailed the vast wealth his family members had amassed, did not suggest Xi was himself corrupt.
In parallel, The New York Times provided a more recent damning report that documented the phenomenal wealth Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members have built up during his time in office. This piece of impressive investigative journalism also highlighted that it came across no evidence to suggest Wen himself had been on the take. I don’t believe either Xi or Wen is personally corrupt.
Why, then, is Xi’s commitment to eliminate corruption unconvincing?
There are two basic reasons. Neither has anything to do with China’s tradition, heritage or genetics. Hong Kong has proved that, even without democracy, its Chinese population has been completely able to tackle corruption successfully. Hong Kong’s experience should be highly inspirational to the rest of China.
The first basic reason is the political system. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Leninist political system in place in China, albeit softened since the Dengist reforms to become a consultative variant, remains the most powerful or absolutist political system ever installed by mankind. There are no checks and balances against the party’s monopoly of power.
The near absolute power of the party is indeed pivotal to the political reality in China. For all the delegation of power to the regions and the arrogant assertiveness of provincial party secretaries, the party central can enforce almost any policy it deems essential to sustain the party’s continued hold on power. The only exception is in the mission to eradicate corruption, which is widely recognised as threatening the survival of the party.
The second basic factor is the fact that family members of top leaders routinely exploit their privileged positions for personal gain. This has become endemic whatever individual top leaders themselves think of corruption. This is why the Bloomberg and New York Times reports are important and illuminating.
The situation in mainland China today makes a striking contrast to the despicable situation that prevailed in Hong Kong at the start of the 1970s. In those days, syndicated corruption was so entrenched and corrosive that even life-saving public services such as firefighting could not be expected to be delivered without a bribe being paid first.
Once a particularly flagrant case – concerning the corruption of police chief superintendent Peter Godber – caught the imagination of the community, the Hong Kong government galvanised itself into action. In less than 10 years, it not only ended syndicated corruption but also instilled a new public ethos.
Since then, the people of Hong Kong, of Chinese stock or not, deem corruption as something beneath them, even though corruption by individuals still exists surreptitiously.
Why can the Hong Kong experience not be replicated on the mainland? It is because the two basic problems that plague China today did not exist in late colonial Hong Kong.
To begin with, the colonial government did not enjoy anything like absolute power. On the contrary, the British knew that colonial rule could only be sustained if it proved less objectionable than the obvious alternative, which was the return of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction. Corruption in late colonial Hong Kong might have been highly organised, but it was not systemic. For all the alleged reach of the syndicates in Hong Kong, it never got close to the top or relatives of top-level officials.
When governor Murray MacLehose realised that the credibility of the colonial government was at stake and acted, he faced no resistance from the top echelons. He also did not need to worry about having to send any relative to jail as part of his anti-corruption drive.
The relative comfort MacLehose enjoyed is not available to Xi. Ending the party’s monopoly of power may be above Xi’s pay grade, as the Politburo as a whole is not ready to do so. But he can still make a real impact without democratisation. Taking on his relatives is something he can do if he is so minded.
Until Xi makes a genuinely dramatic gesture, his anti-corruption drive will not be taken seriously.
The reality in China today is that even if Xi’s relatives do not ask for bribes, they will still find a stream of expensive gifts going their way. Unless they vigorously refuse and report all cases to Xi so that those who attempt to bribe are punished, this will not stop.
Until Xi is willing to jail his relatives or require them to report their friends who bribe them and send them to jail, his anti-corruption campaign will be interpreted in a cynical way. It will be taken by those in authority as a requirement that they should not flaunt their ill-gotten gains, and a few will be sacrificed to enable the party to claim successes.
To make his anti-corruption drive credible, Xi must take dramatic and drastic action that catches the imagination of the cadres and the general public. Nothing less will do.
Steve Tsang is professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham