Listen to this article
When the seven men who will rule China for the next 10 years presented themselves last month, six of them wore red ties. Wang Qishan, the vice-premier well known to foreign investors as one of China’s most capable economic policymakers, came in a blue one.
Mr Wang will need to separate himself from the rest of the political elite to some extent if he is to succeed in his most challenging task yet: battling corruption.
Instead of putting him in charge of the economy, the Communist party made him head of the central discipline inspection commission, the party organ that investigates cadres suspected of corruption.
Almost everyone in China agrees that corruption is endemic. The Communist party leadership has been warning publicly for many years that corruption is the single largest threat to its monopoly on power. When Hu Jintao, outgoing party chief and president, presented his work report at the party’s national congress last month, he warned again that corruption could see the party, or even the nation, perish.
Yet the leadership has been unable to stop the rot. An account of the problem and the party’s counter-measures by Lin Zhe, a professor at the central party school, the party’s main institution for training cadres, highlights the high number of cases, large amounts of money and high degree of organisation and sophistication that corrupt practices involve.
This is despite untiring efforts to better supervise officials and block their chances of siphoning off funds and building networks. Over the past half decade, China’s criminal code has been overhauled and the party’s internal rules updated to outlaw methods of self-enrichment, such as receiving salaries for roles that involve no work or having family members amass riches using official privilege.
But, although thousands of officials are found guilty of corruption every year, the constant tweaks to the rules have not stopped scores more from continuing the same practices. The reason, which even officials who do not support the idea of western-style separation of powers acknowledge, is that the party itself is above the law.
“We have fine laws but they are applied selectively,” says a retired official who headed the anti-corruption unit in a regional prosecutor’s office.
“When we had a case, we would always have to ask the party to decide whether to go ahead with an indictment or even an investigation,” he says. “If you don’t hear back, you had better back off.”
Another problem is that the anti-corruption watchdogs are easily compromised. Since 2004, the party has been fighting corruption in the discipline inspection units on all administrative levels. To ensure officials are not lenient towards people they see as their own, the unit’s cadres must serve outside their home provinces. But the problem persists, says Prof Lin.
One reason for this is that supervision is patchy at best. China has long required officials at all levels to report their income. But Chinese scholars involved in training cadres say officials lack even the most basic concept of what constitutes illegal income, with a large majority regularly boosting their meagre official salaries with fees from “red envelopes” handed out on occasions such as ribbon-cuttings at the opening of a road or a factory.
Moreover, the forms the cadres fill in every year stating their salary are normally just archived. “They are not audited nor published, but those are exactly the steps that are necessary,” says Prof Lin.
For seven years in a row, Han Deyun, a Chongqing-based lawyer and delegate to the National People’s Congress, has proposed draft legislation at the annual session of China’s rubber stamp parliament requiring officials to declare publicly their assets. But the campaign has hit a brick wall as such rules would put the most senior leaders in a bind.
Village or town officials are frequently investigated for alleged corruption when users of China’s vibrant social media expose them for owning watches, cars or houses worth far more than their legal salary could pay for. Every time that happens, the party’s propaganda machine asserts such misbehaviour is being dealt with “according to law”.
Such assurances are often met with sarcasm, as the public increasingly understands how officials transfer their wealth out of the country and how senior leaders’ families have amassed riches.
“Whereas corruption in Japan and South Korea was ‘structural’ and institutionalised, in China it was anarchic and predatory,” Andrew Wedeman, an expert on Chinese corruption, writes in his new book, Double Paradox.
“Corrupt officials were not, it seemed to me, scraping off a share of the gains companies earned from the government’s pro-growth policies; in most cases they were simply preying on companies, stealing a share of their profits in return for not harming them or, in many other cases, stealing from the state itself.”
Get alerts on Special Report when a new story is published