An effective, transparent system is the best way to tackle graft
Downfall of so-called tigers and some of their underlings only scratches the surface of corruption; true success requires genuine reforms
The sentencing of Ling Jihua (令計劃 ) marks the third – and possibly the last – big “tiger” to be caged in President Xi Jinping’s (習近平 ) anti-corruption campaign. The one-time top aide to Hu Jintao (胡錦濤 ), Xi’s predecessor as president and Communist Party leader, is to serve life in jail for taking more than 77 million yuan (HK$$89 million) in bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and abuse of power. The outcome of his secret trial, reported by mainland media, follows the jailing for life of former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang (周永康 ) and former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
What sets them apart is that while Bo, once a rising star, faced remarkably open hearings covered by a controlled internet feed, Ling and Zhou were tried behind closed doors. There may have been little appetite for further revelations of intrigue and power struggles, and the charges did involve state secrets, but mainland analysts say the closed trials were a big step backwards.
The more likely reason Bo was tried in the glare of publicity was a fundamental difference from the others. A charismatic princeling seen as a potential candidate to rival Xi, Bo’s trial became focused on a decadent lifestyle in what amounted to character assassination. It was intended to show the public why such a popular figure had to be put on trial.
That said, Ling’s fall is also a reminder that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign remains very popular in China, even if it is seen at times as a purge of political rivals. As we have reported, 13 rising stars, or alternate members of the 18th Central Committee, have fallen to earth under a cloud of corruption since November 2012, compared with only nine in all the years before that. Most fell from grace at the same time as a political heavyweight with whom they were associated, and three were from the Communist Youth League clique, the power base of Hu Jintao. If there is a problem with the campaign, it could be the need to maintain its momentum by taking down so-called big tigers, which could be problematic. People are already asking who is the next big tiger, or whether Ling is the last.
The campaign so far is not seen to have led to any systematic reform, such as greater transparency and accountability, and a bigger role in the economy for a competitive private sector, that would cement its historical justification. The top leadership has repeatedly described corruption as a serious threat to the party’s political legitimacy. The authorities need to tackle reform if they are serious about fighting graft in the long term. An effective and transparent system works better than just focusing on big tigers.