China’s anti-corruption drive. Small steps made in lots of different directions

How effective is Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive? If you believe the latest data published by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International then progress is indeed being made. But, it’s slow going.

Trying to measure how much corruption exists is often a fool’s errand.  Corruption comes in many shapes and sizes and takes on a variety of different forms.  This doesn’t stop Transparency International, one of the world’s leading anti-corruption NGOs, from publishing an annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).  Data is taken from a range of surveys on corruption and related issues and put in to what is effectively a poll of polls.  States are then ranked on a scale of 1 (the worst score possible) to 100 (the best).

There are many reasons to be just a little sceptical about the voracity of the data in the CPI, but that doesn’t stop it catching many policy-makers’ eyes.  No one wants to see their country going the wrong way in tables like these.  Chinese policy-makers are unlikely to be any different.

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The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI): Much ado about nothing?

Earlier today Transparency International, arguably the world’s most well-known anti-corruption NGO, published the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Despite taking plenty of criticism over the years, the CPI has become an integral part of the global anti-corruption discussion. Proponents and critics alike are rarely slow in coming forward to unpack its findings. SCSC Director Dan Hough analyses why the CPI manages to generate such controversy.

Some things are almost guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is one of those such things. Very few people sit on the fence and claim to be non-plussed by what has become the most well-known attempt to get a feel for how much corruption may plausibly exist. Some commentators use it as an indicator of how much needs to be done, others regard it as an (often forlorn) exercise in quantifying the unquantifiable. Very rarely is anyone ever neutral about it.

Before launching in to any critique of the CPI, it’s worth remembering what exactly the index is and where it has come from. The CPI is a composite index. A variety of data sources are used to create what is in effect a poll of polls on perceptions of corruption in around the world. Data is gathered from surveys of business people and country experts with the aim of measuring perceived levels of public sector corruption. TI provides a detailed account of where its data comes from and also how it uses it, and this is accessible via TI’s own website.

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How much corruption is out there? Well, that depends …

In recent years attempts to measure how much corruption exists have blossomed. Some approaches are based on perceptions of corruption, some on the experiences of individuals. Others use a range of proxies to measure what they argue might be corruption. Subsequently we now have broad aggregate indicators such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions’ Index (CPI) and the Control of Corruption variable in the World Governance Indicators (WGI), as well as much narrower and more focussed indices looking at, amongst other things, state capture, levels of financial secrecy and the quality of the business environment.

One of the most widely-watched of these attempts is TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), the latest editions of which were published late in 2016. The development of the GCB in 2003 was an attempt to move the previous emphasis away from seeking the opinions of experts and business leaders and on to ordinary people. The GCB is a public opinion survey that in 2013 asked 114,000 citizens in 107 countries about their “direct experiences with bribery” before going on to detail citizens’ “views on corruption in the main institutions in their countries”. The latest round of the GCB, published in stages through 2015 and 2016, is equally as expansive. The intention of the GCB is to bring ordinary people in to a field where their experiences and perceptions have traditionally been neglected.

Corruption is (apparently) everywhere

The GCB’s findings give plenty of food for thought. In 2013 more than one in four people around the world reported paying a bribe at some point over the last 12 months. The police and the judiciary were apparently the most bribe-prone institutions. Over half the people surveyed regarded their government as acting in the interests of preferred groups rather than the citizenry at large.

The picture was in many ways just as downbeat in the apparently less-corrupt western world. In the 2016 survey, for example, 53 per cent of citizens across 42 European and central Asian countries believed that their government was doing a poor job in fighting corruption. Perceptions were particularly gloomy in Spain (where 80 per cent of people thought their government was doing badly in this regard), Italy (70 per cent) and France (64 per cent).

Alongside data on questions like these, the 2013 survey also revealed that 65 per cent of New Zealanders – a country that is regularly vying for the top spot in the CPI – felt that over the last two years the level of corruption had increased in their country, whilst only 5 per cent felt that it had decreased. The picture was little better over the Tasman Sea in Australia; over the same time period 59 per cent of Australians thought corruption had worsened whereas, like in New Zealand, only 5 per cent thought it had got better. Things were not dissimilar in Europe; 57 per cent of Germans believed that there was more corruption in their country than two years previously whilst only 8 per cent thought there was less. Furthermore, 65 per cent of Germans thought political parties were in general corrupt, 54 per cent thought the same of the media whilst 49 per cent thought civil servants were either ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’. Sobering numbers.

Perception and reality

The GCB has now firmly established itself as an important part of the measurement mosaic. To TI’s credit, it reacted to criticisms of some of its other indices (principally the CPI) by introducing a detailed survey that helps bring people on the street back in to the discussion. Data such as this does nonetheless highlight two further potential problems.

Firstly, sceptics such as Claudio Weber Abramo have illustrated that opinions on corruption as revealed by the GCB “are strongly correlated with opinions about other issues”. It may well be that rather than picking up specific attitudes to corruption the GCB is tapping in to a much larger worldview. Indeed, Weber Abramo claims that the correlation is so strong that we could actually save ourselves the time and effort of measuring public opinion in this area by simply reading across from data on attitudes to things such as human rights and violence.

Secondly, many of the things that we think can help predict levels of perceived corruption (economic development, press freedom and so on) are not good predictors of how much corruption people claim that they personally have witnessed. In other words there is at times a considerable difference between the amount of corruption that people perceive to exist and the amount that they themselves experience. Only 1 per cent of Australians over the 12 months to 2013 paid a bribe, for example, yet 53 per cent think corruption is a problem. In the 2016 survey no Britons (!) reported paying a bribe, yet 57 per cent of people thought that the UK government was doing badly at fighting corruption.

This discrepancy could, of course, be a reflection of citizen awareness of grand corruption that they themselves don’t experience directly. The differences between what people think and what people experience are nonetheless often very large indeed. Furthermore, the size of these differences can differ noticeably from place to place. Such discrepancies are not simply the domain of the GCB; Eurobarometer surveys reveal similar patterns. As Paul Heywood has noted, 74 per cent of European citizens surveyed in the 2012 Eurobarometer surveys believed corruption to be a ‘major problem’ yet only 8 per cent reported any experience of bribery or attempted bribery.

Where to next?

Data on corruption is now in abundant supply. But it would be disingenuous to claim that analysis of it is an exact science. All of the organisations that produce indices (no matter whether they deal with perceptions, experiences or proxies of corruption) point out, to greater or lesser extents, the weaknesses in their respective approaches. TI and other organisations in the data-producing field may, in other words, talk up their respective efforts to quantify aspects of corrupt practice (and who can blame them), but they do also realise that they are dealing in imperfections.

The GCB offers a plethora of interesting information.  But, as with all corruption indices, we should be careful of reading too much into it. Someone, somewhere across the UK, for example, will have paid a bribe over the last 12 months, and just because the GCB didn’t reveal that statistically doesn’t mean that bribery doesn’t exist. The GCB is merely illustrating that everyday bribery is not a common facet of life in the UK whereas it is in other parts of the world.

Corruption is complex, multifaceted and riddled with nuance, and this makes quantifying it very difficult indeed. The GCB can help us spot trends and illustrate the scale and scope of particular types of corruption. But it is just an indicator not a statement of fact. If used carefully, the data can have a constructive role to play in helping us think just a little more about how the battle against corruption can be taken forward. What it shouldn’t be is taken as the gospel truth.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex