China's crackdown on corruption is widening. At the same time, investigators are also drilling down and unearthing more dirt in individual cases. As more officials fall from grace, the number of political secretaries found to be as corrupt as their bosses has become a talking point.
To root out corruption, it's not enough to merely cut out the tumour; we must also clean out the immediate environment to prevent the disease spreading.
Recently, the international online edition of the People's Daily republished a 1990 speech by President Xi Jinping , then a high-ranking official in Fujian , in which he warned political secretaries against making use of their bosses' power for their own gain.
In the wake of recent scandals involving political secretaries, the republication of the speech was timely. It's worth noting also that provinces and regions including Yunnan, Guangxi, Hebei and Shandong have abolished the secretarial posts serving officials of certain ranks. The move is no coincidence.
As Xi himself pointed out, a secretary's work is important and demanding; they must provide assistance but not interfere, demonstrate independence of mind yet not defy their bosses. Thanks to the tough training they get, many secretaries become good leaders themselves. However, a good number have not only failed to perform their basic duties but even turned corrupt. Some did so behind their bosses' backs while others colluded with their crooked bosses. Some notorious examples were Chen Xitong's secretary Chen Jian, Chen Liangyu's secretary Qin Yu, Gu Junshan's secretary Qiao Xijun, and Liu Tienan's secretary Wang Yong.
Their corruption stems from the same rotten core: unfettered power. To curb corruption, we must rein in power. Ultimately, China needs a society built on the rule of law. For now, the more practicable goal of reform is to decentralise power, to put in place some checks and balances for more transparency and accountability.
Provincial governments that have abolished secretarial posts are not just trying to reduce corruption among secretaries; they are also targeting the senior officials these secretaries serve. By cutting out a layer of people who can act to facilitate bribery or a transfer of benefit, the authorities are hoping to "isolate" the senior officials, who will find it harder to cheat and abuse their power without an assistant at their beck and call.
Ultimately, however, the problem lies with the system of centralised power without oversight. Advanced societies today adopt the rule of law and a system of representative democracy as their framework. The legislature passes the laws, which are carried out by the executive branch. The judiciary then monitors both the legislative and executive branches, with help from an independent and competitive media. Honesty in office need not rest on personal integrity and self-discipline alone.
Commendably, the report of the party's 18th Central Committee has pledged to build a comprehensive system for the healthy exercise of power, by ensuring the separation and co-ordination of decision-making power, administrative power and the power of oversight. The experience of other countries may also be studied.
The Communist Party champions the ideal of Lenin's democratic centralism, which in practice easily becomes autocratic. After all, China has a long history of authoritarianism: thousands of years of rule by an emperor, followed by military rule during the war years and decades of a planned economy.
By denying senior officials a personal assistant, these officials may be forced to have more direct interaction with their subordinates, which would be a welcome change. Yet, officials may well become even more autocratic, given the scant supervision of power.
Comprehensive reforms are the only way to root out corruption. Over the past year, the State Council has initiated legal changes in administrative approvals, government budgeting and procurement, all of which will help curb graft. Empowering civic groups will also improve the people's ability to check any abuse of power. More importantly, political reforms must proceed as promised in the Central Committee's report, to realise a true-to-form people's democracy.
As case after case of government corruption shows, the family members and associates of a corrupt official are often also tainted. China needs institutions that can prevent their misbehaviour. Over the years, the government has issued various directives and guidelines urging that attention be paid to this, including a 2004 guideline issued by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that warned the families and co-workers of senior officials against leveraging their influence for personal gain.
The alarm about such danger was first sounded more than 20 years ago. Today, amid the fight to clean up government, there is need for a systemic change.
This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caing.com