Xi’s Corruption Cleanup: Game On

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations writes that new leader Xi Jinping “has one over-riding political mandate: clean up corruption or clear out.” From urging a no-nonsense approach to government, to accepting the role of the Internet in helping to clean up Chinese society, Economy suggests how Xi’s approach may differ from his predecessors:

In a 2000 interview, Xi Jinping stressed his belief that a new leader should set his own agenda but also build upon the work of his predecessors. Xi is pushing forward on an anti-corruption platform and in so doing is following a long and storied tradition in Chinese history. Mao Zedong launched the country’s first anti-corruption campaign in 1951, just two years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and such campaigns have been a staple of every Chinese leadership since. In the past five years alone, over six hundred thousand Party officials have been investigated for “corruption-related activities.” The challenge here is two-fold: the number that should be investigated is probably closer to six million or even sixty million; and the traditional method of attack—simply plucking out corrupt officials one by one from on high—is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. Fortunately, Xi and his corruption czar Wang Qishan appear to have some other tricks up their sleeves.

Xi Jinping’s domestic political agenda over the next year might best be summed up by simple, clean men in a simple, clean government. Xi wants his officials to be corruption-free, servants of the public good, and modest. Getting there won’t be easy, but he has made his intentions clear.

The message sent by advisers to new Politburo Standing Committee member and anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan, according to The Economist, is that the government should force officials to come clean about their wealth:

The notion of public disclosure of assets by officials has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion in recent months (currently about 1m officials, those above a certain rank, are required to report their assets internally). Yu Zhengsheng, one of seven members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, said at the 18th Party Congress in November that he was open to the idea, while claiming that his family didn’t have much to disclose. On December 3rd Nanfang Daily, a newspaper, reported Huang Xianyao, the chief of disciplinary inspection in Guangdong Province, as saying that a county and a district in the province will be chosen for a pilot project in disclosing assets—one of several such local experiments in recent years.

Party and government disciplinary bodies already mete out a fair degree of punishment. In 2011 almost 143,000 officials were punished for disciplinary violations, and investigations of misconduct led to the recovery of 8.4 billion yuan ($1.35 billion) in assets, according to official statistics.

But for those less inclined to disclose their assets, He Jiahong, a scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, has suggested a solution in the form of an amnesty. Mr He proposes that officials be given until the end of 2013 to disclose their family assets publicly, and that they get an amnesty for any acts of corruption committed to acquire those assets. (Wu Si, editor ofYanhuang Chunqiu, a reformist journal, has made a similar proposal.) Mr He drew inspiration from an amnesty granted to police in colonial Hong Kong in 1977 as part of an effort to root out extensive corruption related to local mafia. “In general we have been fighting yesterday’s corruption,” he says. It is more important for society to fight “tomorrow’s corruption”.

Tea Leaf Nation’s Yueran Zhang notes that Guangdong Province may be leading the charge as the Xi government does more than just talk the talk against official corruption, though netizens have responded with only cautious and skeptical hope:

The experimental policy package proposed by Guangdong authorities includes several measures of unusual rigor, similar to those already implemented in Hong Kong. Guangdong public officials would be required to report their own income as well as their families’ assets. Those who conceal information or lie would be dismissed.

The experiment is part of Guangdong’s Five-Year Plan of Party Administration with Strict Principles (从严治党五年行动计划), an agenda setting forth comprehensive anti-corruption reforms in the province. According to the agenda, the officials’ assets disclosure system will be expanded to the whole province by 2014. Public participation in supervision, especially via online channels, will also be incorporated.

Not everyone is satisfied with the plan as it stands. @华仔老张 took issue with the selection of experimental zones, writing, “The selection of those three counties is really tricky. Shixing is a famous county in poverty in northern Guangdong. Hengqin is in its first stage of development. Nansha is underdeveloped. Why not start from Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan? Is it the case that officials in those cities need leeway? ” Indeed, online observers fear that officials not in the experimental zones could take time to transfer their assets before the policy is expanded. @右岸飘花 argued, “It does not work. Too much time for corrupt officials. What if they transfer their assets or even escape overseas?”

These questions reflect a much more profound concern with the recent good news. Even though disclosing officials’ assets is undoubtedly a positive step, it alone cannot cure the corruption afflicting so many levels of Chinese government. Such a system could be effective only when political reforms in other sectors follow. @慕容雪村 offered this illustration: “Corruption is not just about money and womanizing. Its essence is the abuse of power. What we need is a functioning system of supervision which confines public power within a cage … Making the supervision system work necessitates real media, real opposition parties, and real votes.”

How real is China’s corruption problem compared to other nations? The New York Times Mark McDonald points out that China placed 80th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, but economist Carlos Ramirez of George Mason University claims that China may be no more corrupt than the United States was at the same stage of its development. From Bob Davis of The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report:

When both countries were at a $2,800 per-capita income level  — 1996 in China, early 1870s in the U.S. – newspaper-reported corruption was 7 to 9 times worse in the U.S.  By the time, the two countries reached $7,500 per-capita income – 2009 in China; 1928 in the U.S.—the reported corruption was roughly similar in both countries. The significance, Mr. Ramirez, concludes, is that “while corruption in China is an issue that merits attention, it is not at alarmingly high levels, compared to the U.S. historical experience.”

Prof. Ramirez acknowledges that U.S. newspapers may not report as many incidences of corruption in China – particularly as foreign news staffs shrink – as they did in the past about domestic corruption. He tries to account for those discrepancies through statistical techniques and by comparing some outcomes with Transparency International’s corruption index. He also notes that U.S. newspapers pick up wire services accounts from around the world that report on China. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who was one of the first to use computer searches of newspaper articles to do economic analysis of corruption, says Mr. Ramirez appears to have been careful in his methodology and calls the findings “interesting.”

There’s more good news for China – Mr. Xi, are you listening? Mr. Ramirez argues that there is a “life-cycle” theory of corruption. Corruption rises in the early stages of development and then declines as a country reaches advanced-economy status.  That’s roughly born out by Transparency International’s corruption rankings, where the worst grifters are,  overwhelmingly,  poor nations.  China ranks number 80 on TI’s latest list of “perceived corruption.” That’s almost precisely in the middle of the pack, perhaps fitting for a middle-income country like China.

Tea Leaf Nation contributor David Caragliano, however, canvasses Sina Weibo and finds that a number of netizens think Transparency International’s rankings took it easy on China:

A number of netizens quipped that Transparency International must have been bribed.  “The high ranking isn’t true-how much [money] did Transparency International take?” asked @霸气超ER. Others such as @我是糕富帅 aired frustrations over recent corruption scandals: “Foreigners really don’t understand China. How could a country where a village chief has 1 or 2 billion [RMB] in assets [from US$150 million to US$300 million] rank 80th?”

The corruption index also offered the opportunity for Web users to see how China measured up to peer nations. Microbloggers relished the opportunity to draw comparisons and put their standing in broader context. @往事如风云 pointed out Taiwan’s ranking at 37: “I’d been surprised to hear others call Taiwan more corrupt than the Mainland. I haven’t been there, and I’d rather believe this survey.”

Some comments expressed a mixture of pride and nationalism. “How do I see China’s ranking? At least we’re ahead of a bunch of those ‘democratic’ countries like India, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, Greece, and we’re better off than the post-Arab Spring countries Egypt and Libya,” @超级小璁璁wrote.

The buzz around the corruption perception index provides yet another example of how online information and social networking are providing channels for citizens to develop a more independent sense of how their government operates.