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The Secret Pitfall in China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

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China Power

The Secret Pitfall in China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

The good new: China’s official are acting less and less corrupt. The bad news: They’re doing less and less.

The Secret Pitfall in China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ VOA

President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan, secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, have resolutely fought corruption since they took office over two years ago. They have meted out punishments to both senior and junior corrupt officials; the number of fallen officials has reached 100,000. They’ve more or less achieved Wang’s state goal – making it so that officials “don’t dare to be corrupt.”

However, there’s a problem. At the beginning of the anti-corruption campaign, many officials wanted to just keep their heads low until the storm passed. Even today, some officials are uncertain or even dispirited – they have stopped “acting up,” yes, but they have also stopped “acting” altogether.

From the perspective ordinary citizens, an official “acting up” is obviously bad, but not acting might be just as bad. This so-called “acting up” is actually not chaos but is based on a “orderly” set of unspoken rules — trading money or sex for power. As long as you give the money, you can get things done. Yes, social morals were destroyed and the bottom-line of morality sunk lower and lower, but people could still handle affairs – for example, getting a business license approved.

However, when officials start “not acting” it’s a different story. They occupy their posts, but they won’t act – they don’t dare to use the unspoken rules of corruption, but they aren’t willing to follow the actual rules. These officials are being passive and purposefully slow-moving. So, for example, that business license you applied for is not approved, and there’s nothing you can do to move it forward. More seriously, if this sort of inaction continues, it could impact economic development. As unpopular as “acting up” is, “not acting” is just as bad, and just as likely to influence the relationship between the government and the public.

Of course, inaction results from the fact that some officials are frightened by the anti-corruption campaign, which is inevitable in a certain stage of the fight against corruption. In the past two years, we can see that the obvious acts of corruption by government officials have decreased, but the phenomenon of “not acting” has become worse and worse in some regions. I believe that today, Xi and Wang’s anti-corruption efforts have already proven to be more than a new leader being especially strict. Anti-corruption isn’t a passing storm. Plus, after anti-corruption efforts make officials “not dare” to be corrupt, some new rules and regulations will gradually appear on the agenda. So the problem of officials “acting us” will eventually take a turn for the better – the question is what to do about officials “not acting.”

First of all, it is necessary to break away from the outdated rules for selecting officials. There are plenty of competent aspiring officials among China’s public servants. However, for a long time, they would have to either associate with undesirable elements in order to rise up the ranks, or else protect their own moral code and end up working unnoticed, never attainting their ambitions. Such officials have a positive view toward Xi’s corruption fight, but it’s still difficult for them to stand out according to the old rules for advancement. When it comes to such officials, I argue that we have to liberate our thoughts and thoroughly reform the employment system. We must boldly promote cadres who support anti-corruption and are willing to follow the direction of the new administration’s policies. We have to break the limitations imposed by region and rank and moved away from the convention. Unfortunately, according to my observations this work hasn’t even come close to starting yet. Many vacant positions left by the fall of corrupt officials are still unfilled.

Second, we must make use of talents without limiting ourselves to one approach. Similarly, we need to reflect on the fact that currently most leading officials are promoted from the ranks of civil servants. While this matches the practices of other countries, it’s a problem for China right now, as it goes through a time of dramatic transformation. China needs a large number of competent and responsible civil servants, and the current crop of civil servants are at their last gasps thanks to their old-fashioned habits. In addition, ever since the reform and opening-up policy, and especially in the past 10 years, the corruption of civil servants has become a common practice. As a result, some experts who want to contribute to the public good actually try their hardest to avoid becoming officials. Right now, however, efforts to clean up officialdom have given many people hope and a new interest in becoming civil servants. When it comes to our employment system, we should think hard about bringing in new blood from outside the ranks of civil servants.

When Chen Jining, then the president of Tsinghua University, was appointed the minister of Environmental Protection, it was only the beginning. When this way of appointing senior officials becomes wide-spread, a chess-like strategy for employing civil servants will be alive and well. In fact, there are many talented people in every field – including people who used to live overseas – who can adapt to the new situation in China. If we can break away from convention and look in unconventional places for talented people, it will be hugely beneficial to solving the hard problems and ending the bottleneck that plagues reform efforts.

Of course, we also need to consider the existing mechanism for appointing officials. Under the current system, if a powerful official goes corrupt, it will be difficult to find a single clean official in his employ. To avoid this problem in the future will require serious self-criticism and reflection upon the current personnel system and regulation and supervisory mechanisms. So my final point of emphasis is on supervisory mechanisms, not only the checks and balances within the system, but more importantly supervision by the public and the media. No matter how good the system and how good the officials, without supervision, it is inevitable that some cadres will be sluggish and corrupt.

We must deal with “acting up” and “not acting” at the same time. We if can reverse and restrain both tendencies at the same time, it will bring about a new look for China. We’ve already seen a clear message during the most important parts of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — including Premier Li Keqiang’s work statement and Wang Qishan’s speech. From now on, it’s not enough to simply avoid “acting up”; officials cannot “not act” either. Let’s wait and see what the results are.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.