China's War on Corruption Is About to Get Real

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In Guangdong province, ad hoc punitive investigations will soon give way to institutions built to deter graft in the first place.

RTR39MUS-615.jpgBo Xilai, then the governor of Liaoning province, delivers a speech in 2003. Bo, once a contender for China's top leadership, faces trial and a long jail sentence on accusations of corruption and abuse of power. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

On December 9, world anti-corruption day, the government of Guangdong province in Southern China took a step toward something potentially huge. According to China Business Journal, the government selected three counties -- Hengqin County of Zhuhai City, Nansha County of Guangzhou City and Shixing County of Shaoguan City -- to be "experimental zones" for a system to make information about officials' assets publicly available in 2013.

No More Movement-Style Anti-Corruption, Please

After the transition of power at China's 18th Party Congress, the country's leaders have voiced their determination to fight corruption with a stringency rarely seen in the past. On November 17, President Xi Jinping said that corruption, if left uncontrolled, would ruin the Communist Party and the nation. His voice was echoed by Wang Qishan, also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the secretary of the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Committee of the Party, during a symposium two weeks later. The symposium had gathered eight scholars of political science, law,and economics to give advice on fighting corruption.

The torrent of anti-corruption rhetoric seems also to be unfolding in practice. In recent weeks, more than ten public officials have been dismissed and investigated. To name just a few: Li Chuncheng, the vice party secretary of Sichuan province, Shan Zengde, the vice agriculture chief of Shandong province, and Lei Zhengfu, the party secretary of Beibei County of Chongqing. The downfalls of many officials have followed a similar trajectory: Evidence of corruption was first released online, drawing momentous public attention on social media within days. Pressured by public opinion, the government stepped in to investigate, ultimately sacking the officials named. These repeat watchdog successes have led many to conclude that "online sleuths" are becoming the backbone of China's anti-corruption drive.

Yet a large portion of Web users feel that the string of cases look more like arbitrary political moves than reliable institutional proceedings. Writing on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, user @敏而好学1990 asserts that practices of this method of corruption-busting is not sustainable. "The anti-corruption campaigns draw everyone's attention now. These types of movement-style campaigns harvest lots of praise. But they are not something new. Premier Zhu Rongji [who served from 1998 to 2003] was even harsher than this. He even said that he prepared 100 coffins for corrupt officials, and one for himself. What determination he had. But the efforts ended up with more corruption. ... No movement-style campaign can solve the problem. .... We need normalized systems."

'Institutional systems of supervision, checks and balances are the only path to sustainable anti-corruption in the long run. Too heavy a dependence on tip-offs by netizens cannot endure.'

Lawyer Chen Youxi (@陈有西) echoes this skepticism, adding that the campaigns reinforce rule by men instead of rule by law, and might even come to endanger ordinary citizens. "At first only the officials feel endangered, but soon citizens may feel endangered. Many people don't know that there is no clear boundary" restricting practices of this kind to a certain population. Chen's point: Everyone is a potential target.

For sure, none of the multiple waves of large-scale anti-corruption in the past halted the long-term trend corrupting China's officialdom. Clean-up actions focused on investigation and punishment rather than prevention. @曹不为 argues that the old ideology must be replaced with institutional prescriptions. "Institutional systems of supervision, checks and balances are the only path to sustainable anti-corruption in the long run. Too heavy a dependence on tip-offs by netizens cannot endure. It might even be utilized by some politicians to attack political rivals."

Chinese Web users have suggested all manner of possible corruption antidotes, but the most frequently mentioned step is asset disclosure by public officials. Economist Han Zhiguo (@韩志国) explains its importance this way: "In order to solve the deeply-rooted problem of corruption, disclosure of officials' assets is unavoidable ... The Hong Kong government was once seriously corrupt for a long time. But the problem was eradicated soon after the implementation of a disclosure system and the establishment of the Independent Commission against Corruption."

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Yueran Zhang is a Chinese writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He contributes regularly to Tea Leaf Nation.

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