The number one motivation behind China’s anti-corruption efforts is domestic stability. Whenever corruption has seeped into a dynasty, be it the Han (220 AD) – as vividly detailed in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – or the Qing (1911) with its scheming mandarins, the ruling regime lost the mandate of heaven and fell. This not merely a colourful aside: historical memory deeply informs the thinking of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Targeting corrupt actors falls perfectly in line with previous CCP rhetoric regarding the need to root out land owners, saboteurs, hoarders of rice, and other leeches on national productivity. These sentiments were in turn informed by the harsh attitudes against extortionate land lords and officials, as well as bandits; the twin plagues of internal discord during imperial China. Thus anti-corruption efforts and language find ample precedence in Chinese history and national memory.
Maintaining public support is paramount for the CCP, especially as it has shed it ideological trappings, and is in certain ways looking for new meaning. Moreover, the CCP needs to stave off the doubts of the Chinese public which question the CCP’s relevance in the 21st century. Consequently, the CCP has to bill itself as the most effective public administrator. If the CCP can instill confidence in the public, then they can dissuade them from considering untested alternative governing options.
The way the CCP maintains this legitimacy is by demonstrating the economic bounty that its stewardship has bestowed upon the people. By placating the population’s materialistic needs, the CCP has in the decades since Mao’s death diverted public attention and energy into economic, and away from political matters. Following Deng Xiaoping’s mantra that “[t]o get rich is glorious” and more recently Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”, the CCP has focused on improving quality of life. Having lifted hundreds of millions out of subsistence level poverty, Beijing has directed the population’s efforts into national building.
Guilty vs. Guilty by Association
There are two broad categories of corruption in China: a) corruption directly related to CCP policies and party organs, and b) corruption which comes about in due course in countries which experience rapid growth and demonstrate insufficient civil society and public accountability.
With regards to the first category, as long as Chinese citizens are experiencing on-going improvements in their lives, they are willing to tolerate Beijing’s heavy handed social and political policies. Yet with slowing growth, both Beijing and the populace are seeking scapegoats. Admittedly, there is widespread corruption in China, especially surrounding government programs such as the one-child policy, urban-rural residency permits, underground churches, and black market medical care.
All these sources of corruption, with which the public are forced to deal with on a daily basis, stem from government policies. Reluctance to criticize the regime in economic boom times is a common phenomenon, yet as growth slows and discontent increases, this reluctance disappears. While China does not broadcast the fact to the greater world, or even to its own citizens, there are tens of thousands of protests in China every year. These protests overwhelmingly concern corruption and pollution.
China’s massive party apparatus and state-supported economic development put not just the government, but the CCP itself in the firing line. In the two areas mentioned previously, the CCP is having to deal with decades of unaddressed dissatisfaction stemming from China’s ‘growth over everything’ policies. Reforming the policies which cause this systemic corruption takes time, and while Beijing is pragmatic and willing, it cannot openly admit fault: enter anti-corruption scapegoatism. By publicly announcing its anti-corruption efforts, the CCP distances itself from the issue as well as engages in a witch-hunt of lower and mid-tier party officials.
This tactic often does expose real sources of corruption, thus allowing Beijing to blame ‘a few bad apples‘ for local or provincial corruption; while ignoring the national lack of accountability and civil society under CCP rule, which created said systemic corruption in the first place. Highly public anti-corruption efforts and trials also allow the government to implement reforms as remedies against corrupt officials, as opposed as solutions to past CCP failures, thus saving face.
Xi Jinping’s recent anti-corruption drive embodies many of these elements, although it does represent a concerted, and I believe genuine, effort to stamp out corruption. While there are show-trial elements inherent in the program, Xi recognizes that championing this cause boosts his domestic image and support, as well as solidifies his control over government. Would-be opponents may think twice, as corruption within their departments or mandates may see their heads on the block in the name of accountability.
With regards to the second type of corruption mentioned above, here the CCP is – in the eyes of the public – in many cases guilty by association. Given the widespread integration of party organs in various social organizations, as well as the predominance of state-run institutions and companies, corruption in these areas indirectly tarnishes the government’s image. The public is aware of the connections these entities have to the government, so any failure by stamp out corruption ultimately directs discontent back at the regime.
Given that growth has absolute priority, the government has been more proactive in its anti-corruption efforts here. This is largely due to the fact that foreign firms, investors, and governments come into contact with the above mentioned CCP-linked entities. If China’s economic actors, and by extension the government is seen as corrupt and unwilling to tackle those who wrong foreign actors, business confidence will sink. Beijing cannot allow this to occur, and this fear drives its anti-corruption efforts. Lower business confidence mean less investment and trade which means lower growth, and hence greater discontent.
Anti-Corruption Efforts in China Going Forward
As for an anti-corruption time line, I would argue that China will continue apace with its efforts. Since China’s opening in the 1980s its main focus has been stamping out corruption in the economy, specifically the elements that deal with foreign economic activity. This area will continue to be China’s main immediate focus. This will be trickier as more economic activity is conducted by non-state corporations. Consequently, China will need to increase efforts to enshrine a culture of corporate responsibility as well create efficient regulatory mechanisms.
With regards to the first category of corruption, this ties into China’s larger domestic stability efforts. Any egregious sources of public discontent will be dealt with post-haste, while the government will continue to slowly implement systemic reforms to even longstanding policies, as seen with its recent alterations to the one-child policy, itself a major source of corruption.
The government walks a fine line in that it seeks to increase accountability and transparency in select areas, while attempting to prevent public curiosity and calls for openness penetrating where Beijing benefits from obfuscation. Ideally, Beijing looks to states such as Singapore which enjoy ultra-low levels of corruption, high transparency, and efficiency ratings, yet still maintain social and political control via a firm hand on the reins of government.
Originally written for Freedom Observatory