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In ‘core leader’ Xi Jinping’s China, discipline trumps corruption when it comes to reform

Tim Collard says the drive to address popular discontent at abuse of power may have seen big heads roll, but top-down iron discipline can only have a limited effect on corruption in a country too big for constant surveillance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 2:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 6:08pm

The two great watchwords of President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) internal reform programme have been “corruption” and “discipline”. China, and the ruling Communist Party in particular, needs less of the former, more of the latter.

At the beginning, the emphasis was more on addressing widespread popular resentment at abuse of power by officials, often involving demands for bribes.

About a million of the party’s 90 million members have been sanctioned for corruption-related offences since Xi took power – 82 officials of deputy ministerial or higher status have been investigated since then, with 28 sentenced and several more still awaiting sentence. Some very prominent heads have rolled, most notably those of Bo Xilai ( 薄熙來 ) and Zhou Yongkang (周永康), demonstrating that high status within the party is no protection against investigation and conviction.

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But the problem of corruption has not been solved even by such powerful deterrents. Although no one can be certain of absolute immunity, it is clear that many officials see the chance of being caught as too small to worry about. When major explosions killed more than 170 people at a chemicals warehouse in Tianjin (天津) in August last year, an investigation revealed that safety, licensing and customs procedures had been disregarded: it was not suggested that money had changed hands, but it was clear that officials had not done their jobs properly, possibly due to close contacts – guanxi – with the company management. Over a year later, reports suggest that the recommendations of the subsequent inquiry have not been duly implemented. The Tianjin authorities are clearly not living in great fear of the corruption and discipline agencies.

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But in a country the size of China, the eyes of the Discipline and Inspection Commission cannot be everywhere. So it is not too difficult for officials engaged in dubious practices to cover their tracks so that irregularities are well hidden from commission officials at national and provincial level. There will be many who know what is going on, namely those lower down the pecking order who actually suffer under these corrupt practices. But China is not yet ready to accept whistle-blowing from below – information can only be gathered via surveillance from above.

This can lead to ludicrous situations. My wife, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine working in the UK, recently went back to China for a university reunion. Her old colleagues, most now quite senior in the Chinese medical establishment, had an enjoyable dinner together; then someone suggested prolonging the evening in a karaoke bar. At this, all those in local or provincial administration said they would have to bow out: senior officials cannot be seen entering a karaoke bar, as these are now seen as linked to corruption.

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Such sweeping generalisations have to be submitted to; whereas she found that petty corruption – bribery and queue-jumping for patients, going as far as threats of violence against doctors – was far worse than when she last worked in China 20 years ago.

These anomalies formed part of the background to Xi’s speech to the sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress, and to the supporting speeches made on his behalf. Here, one could perceive a definite shift in emphasis: the “disciplinary” angle has now become paramount. The proclamation of Xi as a “core leader” in succession to Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) and Jiang Zemin ( 江澤民 ) was the centrepiece, along with calls for absolute unity of policy under the “core leadership”. But iron discipline, applied “top-down” without any “bottom-up” contribution, is not conducive to fighting corruption. The more promptly an official clicks his heels in obedience to his superiors, the better chance he has of being able to get away with minor malfeasances once Big Brother’s back is turned.

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The impression one gets is that the leadership has recognised that, of the two guiding principles of fighting corruption and discipline in party and state, the latter will always be paramount. No doubt there will be further high-profile cases in which offenders are exposed to justice in the full light of publicity, but the prospects for increased responsiveness by the “core leadership” to popular discontent at official abuses may have taken a nosedive.

Tim Collard is a former UK diplomat specialising in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing