China's Anti-Corruption Campaign Enters Phase Two

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While most ordinary Chinese focus their attention on the roller-coaster-like stock market in recent days, a quiet but fundamental reform is unfolding with regard to anti-corruption. On June 26, at the Politiburo collective study session, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of laws and regulations in the anti-corruption campaign.

According to Xi’s speech, though China has made great achievements in anti-corruption campaign since the 18th Party congress, the overall situation is still serious. Xi stressed that anti-corruption campaign will not stop despite some skeptical views in Chinese society. What is most important now is the building of institutions, which includes the attendant laws and regulations. Xi also emphasized that the Party will not allow the so-called “broken window” effect to occur.

From this study session, the message is clear enough: the first stage of anti-corruption campaign is largely over, and many big “tigers,” such as Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou, have been brought down. That is a huge success. Most Chinese government officials now are afraid of engaging in corruption, and they fear almost to death the name of Wang Qishan, the leader of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). There is even a popular joke among Chinese that officials would rather face the devil himself over Wang. Indeed, Wang has been a major reason behind the huge success of anti-corruption campaign. Xi and Wang are the most respected politicians in China these days.

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Nonetheless, as Xi and Wang often emphasize, China is entering the second stage of anti-corruption campaign, which arguably is more crucial. The key to success in this step is to build effective institutions to prevent corruption from occurring at all—in Chinese, it means officials will be “unable to engage in corruption,” even if they wanted to do so. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area, both in terms of designing effective institutions and implementing them forcefully in reality. Institutions need to be creative. For example, the CCDI has encouraged ordinary Chinese to start a “taking pictures of corruption when you see it” campaign, meaning that ordinary Chinese should use their cell phones to take pictures of government officials who engage in practices suggestive of corruption such as luxury eating and drinking. They can upload the pictures to the website of the CCDI so Wang’s agency can start its investigation as soon as possible. Innovative institutions like these have been popular within China, but more need to be created.

According to the three-stage theory of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the success of this second stage eventually will lead to the third stage: “do not even think about engaging in corruption.” This endeavor is fundamentally about changing China’s political culture, and this is much more difficult than changing institutions.

To address this problem, one related policy reform—perhaps the most significant personnel reform after the 18th Party Congress—was also adopted on the same day. The essence of this new reform is to make sure that leading cadres of the Party can be both promoted and demoted. Although this might sound like a normal policy in other countries, in China it is usually the case that party leaders, once they have reached a high rank, cannot be demoted for their incompetence or policy failures. They could be removed from their posts, but their rank would stay with them, thus entitling them to the same benefits – medical and otherwise – that they’d have received before. The mission, for Xi, obviously is to eliminate those officials who are against reforms and are corrupt and incompetent.

This is crucial because the reforms proposed by Xi and his colleagues are now meeting serious resistance across many levels of government. Unless Xi can seriously discipline these cadres, China’s reforms will continue to be stalled. As a half-joke about Chinese government’s policy reforms says goes: “governmental order does not even fly out of Zhongnanhai.”

Whether or not Xi’s new anti-corruption and personnel reforms will succeed, of course, remains to be seen. But at least the top leaders have identified the key problems and proposed solutions. If they can effectively implement these reforms, we can expect a much cleaner and more effective governance system in China by 2020.

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