Xi Jinping continues to talk tough on corruption, but the more he cracks the whip the more he reveals the superficiality of what he’s doing.

Cui Lianhai is a name that next to no one in the UK will have heard of.  Until recently Mr Lianhai was a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) apparatchik, minding his own business in the nondescript town of Qinjiatun in Jilin Province, North-East China.  That changed in June, when Mr Lianhai was sentenced to 20 years behind bars (see here).  His crime?  He was revealed to have claimed an average of 278 Yuan (approximately 28 pounds) a day in travel expenses.

Mr Lianhai’s commute may not cost him quite the same as it does each of the thousands who cram in to commuter trains around cities like London everyday, but from the outside looking in, and putting it decidedly diplomatically, no matter how much he’s added on to the true cost of his daily journey, the punishment still looks a little on the heavy side.  Mr Lianhai’s case is also not unique; Xinhua, one of China’s most well-known news outlets, has revealed that more than 6,000 CCP officials are currently under investigation by CCDI (China’s anti-corruption agency) inspectors for fiddling their travel expenses, with 2,350 in the state of Heilongjiang (in Manchuria) alone.  Padding the expenses account can certainly get you in to trouble (as British MPs know better than most), but, still, 20 years in prison?  This is heavy duty stuff.

The anti-corruption drive being pushed by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has not been slow to put the indiscretions of both heavyweights (known as ‘tigers’) and no-names (‘flies’) like Mr Lianhai under the microscope.  By the end of August 2014 nearly 75,000 of the CCP’s 86 million members had been investigated for corruption, with over a quarter found guilty of their alleged indiscretions.  Xi’s strategy for rooting out corrupt practices has been two pronged; publicly prosecute a small number of big names as well as a much greater number of lower officials down the bureaucratic hierarchy.  The aim?  Send a message to everyone else that they could be next if they don’t buck their ideas up.

Impressive though all of this sounds, the chances of it prompting long-term change are slim.  Anti-corruption campaigns in China are nothing new, and CCP leaders have regularly used them as flimsy cover for either stabilising their own positions and/or as a tool for purging political opponents.  Indeed, there have been no less than four such discernible campaigns since Mao passed away and all of them have followed largely similar patterns; scare your opponents, show you’re in charge and punish a significant number of people with either fines or jail terms.

If Xi were serious about tackling corruption, then prosecutions would be only one part (and a relatively small part at that) of a much bigger package.  In practice, the structures that underpin Chinese public life are the problem, and tackling them is much more difficult.  In practice, Xi needs to move China, however slowly, in three broad directions.  Firstly, Xi needs to make an effort to limit the amount of bureaucratic discretion available to Chinese public servants.  In a system where transparency and openness don’t come naturally, the more discretion you give individuals the more you should expect them to take personal advantage of it.  Tackling the kickback culture that pervades much of China’s regional and local government is not easy, but creating rules based systems that shape decision-making would be one way of making a start in terms of tightening things up.  That doesn’t have to undermine one-party rule, but it does have to – slowly but surely – mean that rules shape decision-making.

Secondly, the CCP may well keep internet usage on a tight leash, but if it really wants to root out corrupt behaviour then it needs to support rather than curtail the right of the media to investigate allegedly corrupt acts.  Turkeys, you might argue, may also vote for Christmas, but if the CCP is serious about tackling corruption it needs to find a way to channel the not inconsiderable public discontentment with their corrupt elites in to the anti-corruption process.  Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is one tool for doing this (for more on this, see here), but there are others.  The CCP needs to show it’s moving with the times and aware of that.

Finally, and even more fundamentally, the Chinese government needs to find a way to increase the role of citizens not just in reporting corruption when they see and experience it, but also of having rather more say in how they govern themselves.  This does not by any stretch mean the implementation of democracy a la the West; on the contrary, the CCP would have an opportunity here to develop new ways of bringing citizens in to the discussion in ways that it finds appropriate.  Small steps are likely to be better than no steps at all, and there is some evidence that the CCP is aware of this.  Not that we see radical change happening, but local elections, for example, already take place in more places than many in the West probably realise.

Xi’s problem is that these challenges have as much to do with the quality of governance as they do with directly tackling corruption.  The former comes before the latter, and that remains true no matter how many low level expenses cheats end up in prison.  If you’re not on this journey, in other words, for the long haul, you’re not on it at all.

Dan Hough
University of Sussex

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