Chinese leaders appear to have decided that the risk of a long slow death by “corruption cancer” is preferable to undergoing a high-risk operation of real political reform. The recent arrest of another batch of Chinese anti-corruption campaigners begs the question of how seriously Chinese leaders want to address the admittedly life-threatening corruption problem. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping made headlines last November by declaring that if the Communist Party failed to address corruption, it could lead to the death of not only the Party but also the Chinese state. To demonstrate the seriousness of the problem, Xi Jinping even appointed one of the Party’s most capable officials, Wang Qishan, to lead the anti-corruption effort.
Thus far Wang and his team have adopted a number of measures to great fanfare. They have issued regulations to limit official excess, pursued high-profile cases of graft involving multinationals, such as GlaxoSmithKline, and most recently announced that they will send teams of inspectors throughout the country to investigate local officials. All of these top-down measures have been tried in one form or another before, with disappointing results.
It is possible that this anti-corruption team will succeed where previous generations of Chinese leaders have failed. More likely, however, they will follow the same path: a number of high-profile arrests, no institutional change to ensure that the roots of corruption are addressed, and an endless cycle of anti-corruption campaigns.
There is no real mystery as to what needs to be done. A December 2012 editorial in the investigative journal Caixin suggests a number of steps to address the country’s “corruption cancer”: a sunshine law that would require officials to disclose their assets, robust public and media scrutiny, and an independent judiciary.
Thus far, the Party has demonstrated little inclination to pursue any of these tough, fundamental reforms or any other real innovation, save a few limited experiments with public disclosure of assets by local officials. Instead, it has sought to limit efforts at public oversight by arresting at least fifteen anti-corruption activists. Even a vibrant online debate over “constitutionalism” in China, which if implemented would effectively make the Party subordinate to the Chinese constitution and laws, was censored. Party journals, such as the Red Flag, dubbed constitutionalism a Western, capitalist construct that had no role in a socialist society. And Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference head Yu Zhengsheng proclaimed that China would never reform along the lines of a Western democratic model, while other senior officials occupied themselves by seeking lessons on anti-corruption from imperial China (an effort that some Chinese netizens understood as little more than the Party trying to ensure that like the Imperial Court, the Party, alone, would conduct and control any anti-corruption efforts).
Perhaps most telling, Transparency International, which publishes an annual global public opinion survey on corruption, did not include China in the 2013 survey, despite China having been included the previous survey (for the first time). Why? No Chinese polling company believed it would be possible to conduct the survey “without omitting many of the questions.”
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.