China corruption Isaac Lawrence/Getty Images

The Next Battle in China’s War on Corruption

Chinese President Xi Jinping knows well the threat that corruption poses to the authority of the Communist Party of China and the state it controls. But moving beyond Xi's anti-corruption purge to build robust and lasting anti-graft institutions will not be easy, owing to enduring opportunities for bureaucratic capture.

HONG KONG – Corruption is a cancer to which no society is immune. It raised the death toll of Iran’s recent earthquake, owing to substandard housing construction ten years ago. It has afflicted the United States Navy, which is now investigating more than 60 admirals and hundreds more officers for fraud and bribery. It has brought down countless governments, from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s administration last year to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government of the Republic of China.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, a keen student of history, is well aware of corruption’s destructive potential – and has confronted the phenomenon head-on. But, as China’s economy continues to modernize, much work remains to be done.

Prior to the economic reforms of the 1980s, corruption in China was relatively petty, as the market’s limited size constrained opportunities for administrative abuse. But, as the market deepened, inadequate legislation and weak institutional safeguards facilitated increasingly brazen corruption and administrative abuses. Meanwhile, as income and education levels rose, citizens became less tolerant of such abuses, increasingly demanding transparent and lawful delivery of basic public goods, from infrastructure to environmental protection, as well as a fair distribution of income and opportunities.

Recognizing the potential of corruption to undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China and the authority of the Chinese state, Xi has embarked on an anti-graft campaign that is unprecedented in scale, scope, and depth. Over the last five years, that campaign has resulted in the dismissal, sanction, or other punishment of no less than 440 provincial officials, 8,900 at the municipal level, 63,000 at the county level, and 278,000 at the village level. Some 58,000 individuals have been referred for further criminal investigation. All in all, 1.7% of the CPC’s 89 million members – including both “tigers” (Party leaders) and “flies” (petty officials) – have been affected.

But the initiative is far from over. At the CPC’s 19th National Congress last month, the Party endorsed the creation of a National Supervision Commission to consolidate and modernize the anti-graft agency, so that it will expand beyond Party members to cover all officials exercising public power at all levels. But building robust and lasting anti-graft institutions will not be easy, owing to the enduring ability of corrupt officials to capture such institutions.

Consider the kind of corruption in advanced economies exposed by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, in which vested interests secure the enactment of laws and regulations that entrench their own advantages. In the US, the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision of 2010 actively encourages such outcomes, by allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums anonymously to help secure the election or defeat of individual candidates. As a result of the decision, outside spending in the 2016 election cycle reached nearly $1.4 billion in 2016, compared less than $100 million in the 2006 cycle.

So corruption is not just a failure of the state; it is also closely linked to the failure of market, legal, and ideological systems. If the concentrated economic and social power that financial markets and network economies tend to create can be used to capture and control political power, an effective system of checks and balances becomes virtually impossible.

The London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber frames the problem in terms of how political actors approach bureaucracy. As Graeber points out, those on the political right condemn excessive bureaucracy. Yet their solution – to reduce the role of the state and allow market forces to take over – is actually what fuels cumbersome bureaucratic expansion.

Graeber sums up this argument in what he calls an “iron law of liberalism”: “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces, will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” In other words, markets can work efficiently only with the guidance of a competent, honest, and fair state, with effective protections against abuses and graft from both the market actors who offer bribes and the officials who accept them.

What does this mean for China? For starters, the country needs to develop modern mechanisms for resolving civil disputes arising from unclear property rights or rules for market transactions. Here, China can take inspiration from the Western common law system, in which cases are decided on the basis of existing precedents, or from the use of administrative courts to resolve disputes between individuals and the bureaucracy. Hong Kong’ Independent Commission Against Corruption also provides a useful model.

At the same time, China must reduce the incentive for graft, by raising the pay of public servants at all levels. As it stands, officials’ salaries are usually set with reference to the overall level of national income. But the resulting pay is not high enough to mitigate the temptation officials face to use their enormous power to profit in key sectors, such as energy, finance, and real estate.

Similarly, in advanced economies, officials not only receive much higher pay; they are also often subject to limitations on what they can do, and when, after they leave office. In China, by contrast, officials can exchange favors while in office for higher-paying jobs or benefits after retirement.

Maintaining accountability and preventing vested interests from capturing institutions – a process that involves entrenching morality within vulnerable bureaucracies – will be no easy feat. It may well be the toughest challenge Xi faces in realizing what he calls the “China Dream.” But, for now, China’s anti-corruption agenda seems to be on the right track.

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