Can China End Corruption?

The country's new leaders say they will. But how much power do they have? Part of an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.
pbsc.jpgCan China's top leaders end corruption? (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Andrew Nathan:

In his first press conference after taking office as China's new premier, Li Keqiang declared that one of his top priorities would be to fight corruption, because "corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water." This put Li on message with his boss, Xi Jinping, who said approximately the same thing a few months ago upon taking office as General Secretary of the Party.

Sure, tell me about it. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao also said it when they took office ten years ago. In the decade before that, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji declared that corruption was the most serious threat to the regime. Before them, Deng Xiaoping had said it -- and in his reign it actually almost happened, with the Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations which were partly triggered by resentment of corruption. And before Deng, Mao had said the same thing.

Why can't the Party really root out corruption? Excuse me for being simple-minded, but doesn't an effective attack on corruption require independent prosecutors and courts, and a free press? An authoritarian regime generates temptations for its all-powerful officials at every level to abuse power faster than its internal supervision mechanisms can catch the abusers. And a secret, internal self-policing process is irremediably infected with political and personal favoritism. The opportunity to exercise uninhibited power, or to get in bed with those who do, is one of the chief attractions of the system for its members and supporters -- not a threat to its power but actually one of the mechanisms it uses to stay in power.

If the leaders keep saying one thing and doing another, that's PR, not policy. Some people continue to buy it.

Ouyang Bin:

Professor Nathan, I think it is a super important PR campaign (thanks for coming up with such a pungent word) for the Party today.

The paradox of anti-corruption by the Party is that true, corruption jeopardizes the Party's rule, but so does any serious and effective anti-corruption measure, independent prosecutors and courts, a free press, and not to mention an opposition party. I really doubt to what degree and from what angle the Party is evaluating the threat of corruption. Nearly all the books and articles reflecting on the collapse of the Soviet Union by the Party think tanks have chapters on corruption. But most of them talk about how corruption undermined the Soviet Party's ability to control its members and let the people down. So, as long as somebody is still buying it, and as long as the Party can still use it to punish an unlucky few like Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and Bo Xilai, why bother ending the show?

A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.

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ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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