Institutional Reform or Purge? A Middle Way on China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

A middle path
A middle path

Two contrasting takes on China’s continuing anti-corruption campaign have appeared in the past couple of days that show the radical differences among perspectives on the nature of the campaign and its likely consequences.

Li Chengyan, head of Peking University’s Research Center for Clean Government Construction, conducted an interview with Caixin (Chinese/English) where he argues that anti-corruption activities go hand in hand with market reforms.

The premier, Li Keqiang, has sent out inspection teams to supervise the implementation of reform measures passed at the third full meeting of the party’s 18th Central Committee. They found that local governments have put up quite a lot of resistance to the measures, reflecting some deep-rooted causes. My field trips have also shown that the CDIC’s reforms have not been implemented by many local authorities. Local party committees used to have all power to themselves without supervision. Now they are required to hand over supervision authority. They must be unhappy.

In other words, economic reforms that the center wants to happen are not being implemented by reticent (and corrupt) local officials who were previously unsupervised. The anti-corruption campaign essentially serves as additional monitoring and supervisory role to ensure that local officials follow the dictates of the party center. It is hard to read this as anything other than an increase in central power, which is why the final question and answer felt a bit off:

Do you think the fight against graft will lead to a viable path toward a redistribution of power with checks and balances inside the party?

Comprehensively deepening reform cannot move forward without adequately cracking down on corruption. The new central leadership has taken a two-fisted approach, deepening reform of governance on one hand by redefining the relationship between the government and the market, and on the other hand fighting corruption to remove obstacles to further reform. The two sides of the approach complement and reinforce each other and cannot be separated.

While China has moved forward with citizen participation in rule and law-making and offering comments to proposals, these pale in comparison with the strength of the anti-corruption campaign’s reshaping of day-to-day life in local governments. Checks on local performance have increased, but balance–if it ever existed–has moved strongly in favor of the center.

In the end, though, this is an optimistic take by an intellectual who believes that corruption by local officials represents a real danger to the Party as a whole and that the campaign has been and will continue to be very effective in reducing graft. It is also clearly not a temporary campaign that is being described but an institutional change where discipline inspection officials will exist at least partly outside the rule of their local bosses, and so better able to patrol and punish corruption in their own localities without fear of reprisals.

A very different perspective is provided by David Pilling in the Financial Times in a piece entitled Why China’s hunt for tigers and flies is bound to fail. Pilling’s answer comes only in the final two paragraphs:

First is the manner by which the battle is being fought. With no independent judiciary, the exercise amounts to trial by the Communist party, not trial by law. … However successful, ultimately the exercise can only be seen as arbitrary and politically driven.

The second problem is related. The campaign appears to have taken on the frightening characteristics of a Maoist purge, with ever more people, industries and government agencies sucked into its vortex. Yet one can almost be certain there are limits. Some people are immune. After all, allegations of unfathomable fortunes go right to the top. These point the finger of suspicion not only at the previous leadership, but also at the current one. So where does the whole thing stop? One presumes Mr Xi will at some stage have to call a halt. The unthinkable alternative would be that, as in 18th-century France, the revolution ends up devouring its own.

The first claim is that only rule of law can provide legitimacy to anti-corruption acts and avoid the taint of being arbitrary power politics. While there is likely some truth to the latter piece of that claim, effective acts that reduce corruption will earn the Party and the leadership credit with the population. Perhaps some theoretical anti-corruption crusade that operated through more normal legal channels instead of through the Party and was equally effective would provide even more benefits to the Party. However, giving away that powerful of a tool to an independent legal authority could be extremely dangerous, as noted in Pilling’s second claim, since there are limits as to who can be investigated.

Yet it remains the case that if the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) is effective in reducing the corruption that pervades the economy, then is it necessarily the case that because it is a fact that some remain untouchable that the whole act will be seen as invalid? I find this extremely dubious.

What does seem possibly dangerous is to point out how much corruption is present in the system. Rumors of corrupt deals become facts that the public is made aware of. How many anti-corruption investigations can take place before the populace decides that all officials–and not just all local officials–are corrupt? In this way, one could imagine that the whole game unravels or it devours its own.

In the end, these activities represent a dramatic centralization of power and a reduction–incomplete but important–in the dominance of corruption in China’s political economy.

A final thought that gets at Li’s perspective.

Governing a country is like fighting a battle. The first and foremost concern is destroying the enemy’s effective strength and then straightening out the internal structure.  管理一个国家就像守山头,战役打响了,第一个想到的是怎么把敌人的有生力量消灭掉,而后再用充分时间去理顺体制,重整旗鼓往前走。

I would say instead that for a single party, staying in power may be like fighting a battle, but governing a country could involve asking the population who and how they would like to rule them instead.

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