Imagine a situation where 45 British MPs were kicked out of the House of Commons for indulging in electoral bribery. Or one where a majority of parliamentarians in Scotland or assembly members in Wales or Northern Ireland were booted out for committing the same offence. There would, to put it mildly, be a little bit of controversy. Precisely that has happened in China. And political life is going on much as normal.
China might not appear to be the type of polity where you’d find electoral bribery. After all, the People’s Republic doesn’t have popular elections. But elections of a sort do take place behind closed doors. Their processes are clouded in secrecy, but just occasionally news filters out about how they work.
The background to these elections is both simple and complicated. It is simple in that China basically has six administrative levels. The national level is centred around the party and the government in Beijing. Below that China has 34 provinces and below that 334 prefectures. There are then 2,852 counties, 40,466 townships, and (apparently) 704,386 villages. Representatives at each level are tasked with electing some of their own to the level above. This pyramid structure works right from the village level (where some genuine elections do take place, although they are heavily supervised by the Communist Party) up to the very top of Chinese government. On paper, all clear enough.
The process of gaining support
In practice, there are two real issues with how the system works. First, people regularly get parachuted in to these bodies. As the Hong Kong Standard noted on 13 September, in practice the system can be “highly opaque and exceptions are common”. Paper and practice can often seem to be a long way apart.
Second, quite how representatives go about winning these contests is, to the outsider at least, anything but clear. We’re certainly not talking about systems of open elections. The winners generally ‘emerge’ and are subsequently nominated, often after a prolonged process of politicking in the background. That politicking may well involve paying money to influential power brokers to get your name put forward.
The legislatures at all of these levels have little genuine power – that is reserved for the Communist Party’s committees – but they can still be prestigious places to be. It’s not so much that you can necessarily do much in terms of public service, more that you can be seen to be making progress in your career and to be mixing (and having access to) the rich and powerful.
It’s for that reason that representatives will often try very hard to get themselves nominated. Indeed, sometimes too hard. In 2013 in Hengyang, a city in Hunan Province, 518 out of 527 representatives of the legislature were unceremoniously sacked from their positions after it became clear that they had bribed their way in to them. The total amount of bribes paid exceeded RMB110m (around £15m). Quite how the (decidedly exceptional) 9 who weren’t found to be doing a bit of bribing got in to their positions is not clear.
Similar forms of skulduggery were revealed in early September 2016 when no less than 523 deputies to the Liaoning Provincial People’s Congress (the official name of the legislature) found themselves implicated in electoral fraud. The details of what precisely this fraud entailed have not been revealed, but it is very likely that these officials will have been involved in buying their way up the pyramid. All of them have now either resigned or simply been disqualified from serving in these posts (which they have had since the last election in 2013). 45 Liaoningers have also been sacked from the national parliament in Beijing, all of whom were implicated in the vote-buying scandal.
Liaoning, the southern most province in Manchuria in China’s North-East, now finds itself without a government as no less than 38 of the 62 members of what was previously the government are amongst the 523 who are no longer in parliament. In words that show that understatement is not just a preserve of the English, Xinhua, the official state news agency of China, was quoted as saying that the situation was unprecedented in China and “warrants a creative institutional arrangement”. Indeed.
When what’s expected can be what gets you in to trouble
This, however, is not a simple case of bribery on steroids. In China, the process of making financial contributions to get yourself nominated to higher positions is common. The details are often sketchy and the transactions are done away from the (not so) prying eyes of the press. But they are done nonetheless. And it is commonly known that they are done and indeed that that’s the way you have to behave to make progress.
That the informal norms are widely understood doesn’t mean that they are in line with Chinese law. They aren’t. Hence members of these bodies in China are in an odd position. They are at once expected to bribe and expected not to bribe. If they ‘play the game’ then it won’t be long before they have to get their metaphorical chequebooks out, but by doing that they leave themselves open to accusations of corruption. In Xi Jinping’s China, where many tens of thousands have been prosecuted for corruption offences, that can be a dangerous place to be.
The point is not to defend those implicated in this case. For one thing, the actual details of what happened are hazy. But it is worth acknowledging that Xi’s anti-corruption drive is making a big play of rooting out bad apples. And it is Xi and his close circle of friends who do the defining of terms. The notion that Xi’s system of looking after and furnishing his orchard may be the problem that produces so many bad apples is not, however, something that is up for discussion.