Is Laos’ ruling communist party building up to an anti-corruption campaign similar to the ones we’ve seen in China and Vietnam? Since Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith came to power in early 2016, more officials have been dismissed because of graft, and new laws created to tackle it. And it appeared, around this time last year, that something like a national campaign was brewing.
Yet, at the same time, it is unclear if this has actually amounted to much substantively. Laos fell 12 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index in 2017 (down to 135th place, out of 180) and rose by just two places in its 2018 index (and so remains below its 2016 ranking).
Clearly, communist party delegates remain unimpressed too. At a session of the National Assembly held on June 14, several members launched stinging and rather honest critiques of the party. One member from Xaysomboun province stated that often a “court will make a judgment, and then the accused will get a letter [in his favor] from some powerful official, and then the court will make another decision in the case,” and that court officials “will ask for ‘favors’ [bribes] from the accused, and if no favors are forthcoming, the cases will be endlessly delayed.” Another member, from Houapanh province, bemoaned that “punishments for government workers who break the law are also ineffective. In fact, they are not strict at all.”
On several occasions last year, National Assembly members also raised the issue of corruption, though not as explicitly as they did in June. Given the ferocity of the criticism is growing within the party itself, one might come to conclusion that things aren’t improving. Another explanation is that it is becoming more commonplace to talk about corruption, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago.
But the broader reality is that even if the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party follows the example of Beijing and Hanoi and launches a much-publicized and far-reaching campaign against graft, corruption is unlikely to be rooted out entirely. The nature of corruption is tied to the operation of the one-party political system in Laos. Following from that, it is unlikely to be solvable in its entirety unless we see some sort of political change accompanying it as well.
Each year, international organizations and NGOs will list things that Laos needs to work on, even though Laos still remains a nation of little interest for much of the international community, and its problems are often palmed off through indifference. It needs to build rule of law, we are told, and create an independent judiciary; perhaps even a vocal civil society.
But such bullet-point prescriptions aren’t a guidebook for Laos’ development; they are merely a list of things Laos doesn’t have. Seldom, indeed, do we hear from the UN or World Bank or IMF actually how Laos is to achieve rule of law or solve its corruption problem. There’s a good reason for this: informed observers are well aware that will only be achieved once the one-party system crumbles, but are unwilling to say this because it sounds ominously like wishing for regime change.
Granted, corruption is common in democracies too. But, in most cases, democratic states have laws to curb it and an independent judiciary to enforce punishments. Corrupt politicians can, and are, be kicked out of office by voters. And democracies, in general, also have a free press to investigate corrupt officials.
In Laos, by comparison, there are none of these safeguards. Consider the following basic question: who is to flag corruption? Since the media and civil society has been beaten into silence over the last few decades, officials aren’t held to account by journalists or activists. That leaves the communist party. Indeed, listen closely to what critical National Assembly members were demanding last month: they were specifically calling on the party, not civil society, to do more in fighting corruption.
And who is to prosecute corruption? The courts, presumably. But then, they are merely an appendage of the party. What, then, is to happen to corrupt officials? A handful of senior officials have been sacked in recent years, but most are simply rotated to another position. The party is the real problem when it comes to corruption, and the party has the only solution to the problem.
To be sure, some small measures could curb the problem. But the point is that they wouldn’t solve the problem – at best, they would amount to taking a thimble to scoop water out of a sinking boat. State workers, including police and teachers, are underpaid (and in some cases regularly not paid for several months at a time), so petty corruption becomes one way they can earn a livable wage. Higher state salaries, then, would somewhat reduce petty corruption. More transparency in investment projects would also help, although considering most investment comes from China, and Beijing isn’t keen on transparency, the much weaker Laos wouldn’t be able to enforce transparency even if it wanted to.
Some might also point out that the cases of China and Vietnam prove that anti-corruption campaigns can be waged without major political change. To that, one might respond: what is the true objective of these campaigns? They appear designed, first and foremost, to reaffirm their respective communist party’s control over society through the selective fighting of graft. They appear part political purge, part public relations exercise – indeed, it is hard not see a populist streak in who has been arrested.
Furthermore, nobody can seriously pretend that China or Vietnam isn’t as corrupt as it was just a few years ago, or that an independent judiciary and rule of law has suddenly flourished in either. Examples abound, and, indeed, the rhetoric from these countries reinforces this on a regular basis. For instance, earlier this year, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the highest internal-control institution of the Chinese Communist Party, and the National Supervisory Commission, which monitors state officials, made explicit that their “most fundamental mission” is to “safeguard the leadership of the CCP Central Committee.” So, in other words, their chief goal is to protect President Xi Jinping, not to fight corruption.
One can doubt the capacity of the poorer and less well-organized Lao People’s Revolutionary Party to launch similar anti-corruption campaigns. But even if it could, however, the same logic would apply; any anti-corruption effort is designed to buttress the party’s power, not reduce it. To seriously combat corruption, one must see the party’s authority withering away: less control by the party over the courts and media, a greater role for civil society, and more control over the economy by the private sector than state sector. Realistically, and unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it is going to happen anytime soon.