China’s False War on Corruption

Six years ago, the Chinese Communist Party promised to weed out corrupt government officials. Instead, it largely used the crackdown to target political enemies

In 2013, China’s president, Xi Jinping, announced his goal to fight both “tigers” and “flies,” references to both top-ranking officials and ordinary bureaucrats. At the time, the announcement indicated hope that China could create a clean government—free of bribery, crime, and other corruption endemic to the state—like those of Hong Kong or Singapore. Over five years later, however, China’s anti-corruption campaign has fallen short, with no meaningful political reform in place and no long-term legal framework introduced to prevent corruption.

In the meantime, Xi has continued to concentrate his power, becoming one of the most influential leaders in Chinese history. China’s emerging civil society of NGOs, community groups, and social advocacy organizations, which prospered under economic reform and modernization over the past three decades, now faces increasing government scrutiny. Dissent has been suppressed, making it harder for Chinese people to protest.

I travelled throughout China as a reporter in 2012, the same year Xi launched his worldwide anti-graft campaign, presumably to cut down on political and private influence over public projects. Very often, I would hear ordinary Chinese citizens express their discontent with the one-party government and corrupt officials. “The country is dying from corruption and the widening wealth gap,” a taxi driver who gave me a ride in Chongqing said, something echoed by Xi himself, who said, “We must . . . rid ourselves of any virus that erodes the party’s health.”

For some in China, 2012 was a year of prosperity; for others, the wealth gap only widened. After over three decades of economic and social reforms, China’s gross domestic product reached about $8.5 trillion (US), according to the World Bank, making it the second largest GDP in the world. However, its income inequality was also among the world’s worst. A 2015 report found the wealthiest 1 percent of Chinese households owned a third of the country’s wealth, while the poorest quarter owned just 1 percent. China’s Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income inequality, was 0.422 in 2012, according to the World Bank. A coefficient above 0.4 is generally considered a warning sign of income inequality.

Many people were unhappy about the disparity. The media reported 382 worker strikes in China in 2012, according to data from Hong Kong–based NGO China Labour Bulletin. Many of them were protesting arrears of wages and long working hours. But these issues were only the tip of the iceberg. In time, Chinese citizens held hundreds of protests objecting to issues such as the polluted environment, rising house prices, lack of food safety, and political suffocation— most of which have their roots in corruption. Then, Xi replaced Hu Jintao as president.

In contrast to his predecessor, Xi came from a prominent political family. He was a “princeling”—the descendant of a powerful Communist Party figure, Xi Zhongxun, who later became a vice-premier. Xi followed in his father’s footsteps, and his steady rise to power was possibly helped by his connection to other princelings and their families, who hold key roles in government departments, state enterprises, and financial institutions. Being a princeling may have also enabled Xi to take extreme reform measures within the party and launch his so-called war on corruption.

To understand how corruption works in China, one needs to understand its politics and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China became a one-party country ruled by the CCP in 1949. A seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), whose members also hold senior posts in other top leadership bodies, is the most powerful decision-making body in the party. One member of the PSC is the secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s top anti-graft body and one of the most feared institutions in the country. But the nature of the CCDI has made it potentially susceptible to corruption itself.

For example, the CCDI is responsible for enforcing Xi’s campaign to sanction officials for “serious violations of party discipline,” a subtle Chinese phrase referring to acts of corruption. The CCDI oversees a group of lower-level disciplinary officials. Cases brought forward by the CCDI are rarely overruled by the judicial system, which is not independent from the government administration in China.

The CCDI recently announced that, in 2017, 527,000 people were given discipline violations ranging from warnings and demotions to expulsion from the CCP and removal from office. “Among them,” reports The Diplomat, a current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region, “58 were officials at the provincial and ministerial level or higher. The CCDI also revealed that about 48,000 officials were investigated or prosecuted for severe violations of discipline and suspected criminal activity.”

However, the procedure for investigating a suspected corrupt official is neither standard nor transparent. Officials from the secretive, powerful agency have the ultimate authority to decide who should be targeted and undergo investigation. They can imprison suspected officials for months without a warrant and question them with evidence seized from beatings, sleep deprivation, or anonymous tips. The primary job of the agency is inspections.

Teams from the CCDI conduct surprise inspections of provincial departments and state-owned enterprises. They often work out of makeshift offices at local hotels for months, where they meet with dozens of low- and mid-level officials who have been targeted.

There is an old saying: absolute power corrupts absolutely. The CCDI has grown into the country’s most powerful institution by enforcing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. It became so omnipotent that the CCP decided investigators needed to be reined in and face “higher self-discipline.” “A total of 22 officials with the [CCDI] . . . have been investigated, and about 230 officials have received written or oral warnings since the 18th CCP National Congress in late 2012,” China’s state media Xinhua reported in 2018. “During the same period,” the Xinhua article added, “more than 10,000 officials serving at various levels in Discipline Inspection agencies were punished.”

One consistent paradox in modern Chinese history is that worsening corruption has not seemed to slow China’s economic growth—at least not yet.

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 on the nationalization of land and resources by dividing the farmland of local tyrants (da tuhao, fen tiandi). In the late 1970s, when the Chinese government began to liberalize its economic policies, which allowed individuals to own businesses, the scale of corruption increased dramatically—the liberalization policy enabled government officials to cash in on their ability to manipulate the allocation of national resources of land and capital.

At its core, corruption in China revolves around the concept of guanxi, which roughly translates to “relationships” or “connections.” Guanxi is a Chinese practice of cultivating personal relations with influential people—the term itself doesn’t always indicate corrupt behaviour. Today, individuals seek favours from bureaucrats, and officials to allow them to slip through the back door (zou houmen) to obtain state resources, government projects, green lights to pollute, admissions to elite schools, or jobs in government departments. The effects of guanxi on corrupt dealings is perpetuated by a lack of law, regulations, and transparency.

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously described economic reform as “crossing the river by feeling stones” (mo zhe shi tou guo he), to show that reform policies were adaptable and flexible. Those flexible policies also left room for corruption to flourish and evolve. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Chinese corruption was very different from what it has become. Corrupt officials mostly worked alone. But by 1995, corruption became organized. Officials in one department or even one region began to form close networks and work cooperatively. (The Guangdong Maoming case in 2012 is a classic example: according to reports from the South China Morning Post, a single corruption case in the city of Maoming involved more than 300 officials taking bribes for favours.)

Corruption in China has now evolved from organized corruption to institutionalized corruption. Throughout the late 1990s, governments began to incorporate corruption into their official policies and institutions. Today, corruption has become so rampant that an official charged with taking thousands of yuan is regarded as a reasonable official who may be considered someone who at least does not take too many bribes. In 1994, 1,915 high-level officials were charged with corruption, and the total amount of money involved in these cases totalled 3.4 billion yuan (over $629 million). In 2007, the number of high-level officials prosecuted had jumped to 2,706, and the assets involved had roughly doubled to 6.7 billion yuan (over $1.24 billion).

Despite the government’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, old habits die hard. Xi has a trusted circle of friends who are relatively safe from investigations. The penalty for bribery under Chinese law ranges from fines to the confiscation of property to imprisonment to, in some cases, the death penalty. Yet public officials, corporate executives, and others who offer bribes often escape punishment altogether.

Soon after Xi started his anti-corruption policies in 2012, he ordered a series of crackdowns on China’s growing civil society. The CCP has put human rights lawyers in jail, suppressed internet freedom, closed unauthorized churches, arrested outspoken labour activists, and integrated party organizations into enterprises and universities. The government has also begun to establish an Orwellian “social credit” system, where individuals relinquish their privacy through increased government surveillance in the name of national security. These crackdowns have severely damaged civil society in China.

The Chinese government has also restricted the media’s right to report on critical issues across the country. An unofficial rule that allowed journalists to expose corrupt officials in provinces other than where the media organization was based has been abolished under Xi’s administration. It was replaced with stricter media regulations and more severe censorship, making it difficult for civil society to monitor or expose corruption. Many journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists were arrested and forced to confess without a fair trial or any due process. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently being detained.

In 2018, China entered the sixth year of its anti-corruption drive. According to the CCDI itself, authorities have registered about 1.16 million corruption cases, and 1.14 million officials at or below township level have been punished since the 18th National Congress in 2012. At least 240 senior officials have also been investigated. After a three-day closed-door meeting on of the CCDI in early January 2018, it identified the banking industry as a critical area of corruption, foreshadowing future anti-corruption storms in the financial sector. It is standard practice for state leaders and their princeling children to hire princelings to secure financial deals and build relationships with powerful families.

During a critical meeting last year, Xi called for more anti-corruption efforts to “fundamentally improve the political ecosystem of the [CCP].” So far, regardless of worthwhile questions about its political motivations and sincerity, the anti-corruption campaign has strengthened Xi’s power. But if it is to become a lasting political legacy, more needs to be done from the government’s side. China needs to institutionalize the anti-corruption drive and reform the legal framework so there is an enduring system in place to consistently prevent corruption going forward.

Seven years into its official fight against corruption, Chinese officials are only just becoming cautious about bribe-taking. Instead of being open about it, they now do it less visibly. Corrupt officials used to spend large amounts of money in high-end restaurants and hotels, but officials are much more discreet now. As Xi famously declared when he first came to power, “[We] dare not, cannot, and do not want to be corrupt.” It remains to be seen, however, whether this mantra will ring true.

Echo Hui
Echo Hui is a reporter for the South China Morning Post. Echo has written for Quartz, SCMP, and Caixin, and has just completed a book on investment in Myanmar.