Golf, gluttony and adultery; the curious world of anti-corruption in China

If you’re going to crack down on corruption, then you need to be clear in your mind about what you’re cracking down on. The Chinese Communist Party seems to have interesting ideas in that regard.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been trying to tackle corruption for quite some time now. Xi Jinping, CCP leader since 2012 and President of the country since 2013, has made anti-corruption one of the cornerstones of his term in power and the issue gets daily coverage in newspaper outlets both at home and abroad. Well over 100,000 officials have subsequently been convicted of crimes that come under the rubric of corruption (see here for a nice analysis of the campaign thus far), as Xi has tried to show that in terms of anti-corruption he really does mean business.

Given that China scores poorly in all of the international league tables of corruption – it was 100th (out of 175) in the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International – it is clear that there is a problem here that needs tackling. But the more you investigate, the more you realise that the CCP’s understanding of what precisely corruption is is, well, intriguing.

For most corruption-watchers corruption is the abuse of a public role for private gain. One can add in titbits around the edges – corruption is always deliberate (no one is ever accidentally corrupt) and it is (nearly) always clandestine – but these are extras around the core process of someone abusing their position of power for private advantage. American political scientist Joe Nye is widely acknowledged as being the first to pin down corruption in this way, but it’s now the definition of choice for a host of international organisations and researchers.

In China, however, the CCP understands corruption in a rather more curious fashion. For a start the CCP doesn’t like to talk of corruption as corruption – it prefers to see a corrupt act as a ‘violation of discipline’. Indeed, China’s anti-corruption agency is called the ‘Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’ (CCDI) and when corruption is reported in the Chinese press it is usually within the context of officials not maintaining the standards of discipline expected of them.

This curious phraseology need not necessarily mean too much if the notion of ‘disciplinary rules’ is a cover for anti-corruption laws, rules and codes of practice. That is the way, after all, that corruption is codified in many other parts of the world. But the deeper one digs, the ever more curious things get.

In mid-October it was reported by the much-respected South China Morning Post (see here) that the CCP had updated the discipline rulebook to include amongst things a variety of crimes concerning the playing of golf and indulging in gluttony. The CCDI even set up a hotline so that people could report officials who had been seen to commit one of nine golf-related corrupt acts; these ranged from holding positions on golf club boards to playing the game with others who they have come across in their work environment (see here for more). “Golf” so it was claimed back on 9th April “is a public relations tool that businessmen use to hook officials”. Quite what the members of the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews make of golf being understood in this way has not as yet been recorded.

The sections on inappropriate sexual relations were also beefed up, something that didn’t actually come as too much of a surprise given that adultery has been mentioned in many of the corruption cases that have come to light thus far. Indeed, in November 2014 a government-sanctioned map was realised that revealed that Hubei was the province with the most senior CCP officials who had been prosecuted for this particular discipline infraction (see here). The fact that the provinces where Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang (the Prime Minister) built their political careers were listed as having no sexual indiscretions at all came as little surprise – China’s anti-corruption drive is nothing if not political, and attempts to uncover incidences of corruption that might lead to those at the top of the political pyramid get nowhere. Ask the New York Times, they tried to look in to how XI’s extended family had become as rich as it has and the paper’s website was promptly blocked from mainland China.

In terms of defining what it understands corruption to be China is subsequently in an odd place. On the one hand, many corrupt acts that take place in the Middle Kingdom are so obviously corrupt that further discussion of whether they meet our definitional criteria hardly seems necessary. Stealing from the state or giving a favoured company a contract in return for a bribe, for example, meet all serious definitions of what corruption is.

In China, however, it looks very much like the focus can often still be on the wrong thing. Corruption is best understood as a process and not an event. A CCP official playing golf with a businessman, for example, could mean nothing more than the two of them like hitting a little white ball around a field together and that they dream of being the Asian Rory Mcllroy. That’s not corrupt.

If, of course, the businessman is buttering up the official to gain some sort of advantage, then that is the area that needs investigation – not whether he does this on the golf course, in the gym or in a café over an expensive meal. If the official has to explain the decisions that he or she makes, and if he/she has to reveal anything that could be understood as a conflict of interest then the chances of corruption will be much slimmer. It’s not, in other words, the playing of golf that is the problem, it’s the lack of transparency in decision-making processes that are the real issue. Only when the CCP does something about that will we know that Xi’s anti-corruption drive really is fundamentally changing things.

Dan Hough

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