China’s new leadership under recently installed president Xi Jinping has embarked on the necessary but difficult task of weeding out rampant government corruption. The graft has manifested itself in a myriad of ways over the years, including lax food inspection, shady land deals, secrecy in matters of public importance, and the abuse of power — all of which leave the public with the nagging sense that although China’s dynamic economy is powered by their hard work, out-of-touch bureaucrats get a disproportional share of the riches.
A bevy of well-publicized rule changes and prosecutions have been announced in recent months, intended to send a clear message about the seriousness of reform. The most recent scalp claimed in this grand effort is Yang Kun, a former state banking executive, charged with taking bribes. Before Yang, the deputy head of China’s planning commission was axed for corruption. That followed the prosecution of a minister linked to the deadly 2011 Wenzhou train crash, who was charged in April.
Xi, as well as China’s new leadership team, knows that if the public loses all faith in the integrity of officials, the rumble of social instability could become a roar. That would add disorder to the already sizable challenge of keeping the economy in growth mode with the benefits felt widely. Corruption is wasteful, too, with estimates putting the total cost as high as $200 billion a year. Mindful of the economic and social costs, President Xi instead wants to inspire Chinese people with talk of a “China dream,” which, while vague, offers an dimension of idealism in a period of material gain. To that end, fighting corruption, on big matters and small (or, the “tigers” as well as “flies” as Xi has said) sends the message to the emerging middle class that the government is aligned with the people’s concerns.
The news of the arrest of Yang, the former vice president of the state-controlled Agricultural Bank of China, follows rules adopted in December by the new Politburo aimed at reducing ostentatious displays of wealth and power by government and military figures. Under Xi and new premier Li Keqiang, progress will be gauged by how much corruption they rein in. In fact, the elevation of Wing Qishan, known for tackling crises, to the elite Politburo Standing Committee where he will head the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was a sign itself of the priority given to battling graft in government.
One thing that is certain is that the public has an appetite for leaders who promise to clean house. Before former politician Bo Xilai’s fall from grace in 2012, the would-be Politburo Standing Committee member had won plaudits for battling organized crime in Chongqing in 2009 while encouraging more wealth redistribution.
So far in the era of the new leadership, the anti-corruption effort is having some impact, at least in terms of headlines. Yet the problem remains. China earned a lowly score of 39 in 0-100 scale of public sector corruption perceptions by Transparency International (zero being most corrupt). Investigative publication Caixan reported that 18,000 corrupt officials and employees at state-owned enterprises have moved abroad since the mid-1990s, taking some $130 billion with them.
And as much as high-profile crackdowns generate headlines, corruption at the local level may be the greater irritant for many Chinese. “[Getting] tough on corruption at this tier of Chinese society would satisfy the masses while sparing the economic elite the closer scrutiny it so well deserves,” said Australian academic Matthew Richards, studying at Nanjing Normal University.
Nonetheless, the broad effort against corruption may be having an effect. Some suspect the recent weaker signs in its economy are linked to the crack-down on corruption, as well. But how the anti-corruption effort proceeds is a sensitive matter itself. In a system rife with insider-dealings, the choice of who to prosecute can be selective and political. Indeed, even who reports the news is political. Recently, the government has tolerated some media and blogger-reformists, while cracking down on others. For foreign media, the calculus is different again. Both Bloomberg News and the New York Times had their websites blocked by Chinese sensors (and hacked) after they produced exposes on the wealth of then-prime minister Wen Jiabao.
Chinese leadership is well aware that anti-corruption drives could coalesce into political movements, like those seen elsewhere. China’s leaders, while tolerant of some dissent, are wary of protests — online or in the streets — that could crystallize into a political movement. And that raises the prospect that such an anti-corruption movement might eventually challenge the legitimacy and authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Ironically, then, Xi Jinping’s goal of a less corrupt China is twinned with the need for political stability, rooting out the bad apples in the Chinese Communist Party, while ensuring the party apparatus maintains control. Expect this careful balancing act to continue because, if anything, the growing wealth and education of the emergent middle class — a sign of China’s success — has shortened people’s patience for the kind of corruption that has so far accompanied it.