In tackling corruption, China must respect rule of law
Recent reforms provide a more coherent and better regulated framework for combating graft. But there is a need for these sweeping powers to be used responsibly and for suspects’ rights to be protected
Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption was a defining feature of his first term as president. More than a million officials have been disciplined, from high-ranking “tigers” to lowly “flies.” The campaign, launched in 2012, has been unprecedented in scale and scope. It has been instrumental in Xi’s consolidation of power. Now, with landmark changes to the country’s constitution last month, the campaign has entered a new phase.
The creation of a National Supervisory Commission, to oversee investigations, is intended to consolidate the achievements of the past five years. The reforms centralise operations, expand their scope, and subject them to tighter regulation. They provide stronger legal and institutional foundations. The intention is that this will give anti-corruption activities greater legitimacy. These are worthy objectives. But the new arrangements are open to abuse. They tighten the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s grip on investigations, which have the potential to curb not only corruption, but deviation from the central government’s directives. The new Supervision Law provides some protection for the rights of suspects, but lacks effective checks and balances. Much will depend on how the new law is applied.
In the past, corruption investigations by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection were restricted to party members. The process was ill-defined, lacked legal backing, and led to abuses such as solitary confinement and torture.
The new commission’s authority covers the whole public sector and its operations are regulated by law. This is a step forward. The Supervision Law, for example, places time limits on the period of detention and requires authorities to ensure suspects have food, drink, rest, safety and access to medical services. Their families must be informed of their detention within 24 hours, unless doing so would inhibit the investigation. Suspects can ask the commission to review their case and the procuratorate can drop cases sent to it by the commission. These are all welcome provisions. But safeguards are limited.
The law permits suspects to be detained without trial for up to six months, which is far too long. It also, crucially, fails to provide them with a right to see a lawyer. Without that, the arrangements lack oversight. It is a serious omission.
Corruption must be tackled. It threatens China’s development, leads to social instability and, most important of all, negatively impacts people’s lives. The reforms provide a more coherent and better regulated framework for combating graft. But there is a need for these sweeping powers to be used responsibly and for suspects’ rights to be protected. It is to be hoped that the reforms will further the rule of law, rather than the rule by law.