Tackling corruption’s the key to stability in China

The dramatic purge of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai had all the drama of a Hollywood movie, but there are

Bo Xilai is a name that until recently few in the UK had even heard of. Although his father is one of the "eight elders of the Chinese Communist Party" and he had grown to be one of the "princelings" who dominate public life, Bo’s work in the 30 million plus city of Chongqing remained off more or less all western radars. Yet his downfall has caught the eye not just because, somewhat surreally, his police chief, Wang Lijun, tried at one point to claim asylum in a US consulate and a well-connected British national was found dead in murky circumstances in a Chongqing hotel room, but because of what it says about the way that China works.

Bo’s easy-going and enthusiastic style masked a populist campaign to bring back "red" songs and rhetoric from the time of the cultural revolution. In policy terms, he waged a war against organised crime – leading to over 2,000 arrests and to the development of an image as an enforcer who could get things done. So much for the image. The reality was somewhat different. Bo played fast and loose with what passes for the rule of law, and many people were sucked without into his anti-corruption campaigns without any chance of legal redress. Indeed, it is not just in Chongquing that the rule of law remains a mercurial thing; Bo was more than happy to ignore it if it helped him advance politically. And he is by no means alone in talking a good game but playing another, much dirtier, one.

The paradox of tackling organised crime by corrupting the political process ultimately led to Bo’s downfall. Yet this is a paradox that is in no way limited to Chongquing. China does poorly in the most authoritative corruption ranking, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (the Chinese came a lowly 75th in 2011), and Chinese citizens are very aware that without the right type of "guanxi" (connections or networks) you are unlikely to get much at all done. Indeed, opinion polls regularly suggest that endemic corruption is the issue that Chinese citizens feel most aggrieved about. The Chinese government is well aware of this – it was, after all, student protests at endemic corruption within the Communist Party (CP) that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the CP leadership knows full well that any future uprising against its rule is much more likely to stem from this source than, say, consternation at any alleged lack of democratic oversight and/or human rights abuses. When living and working in China, you soon realise that – no doubt much to the chagrin of western analysts – those two latter points are of little genuine interest to the majority of Chinese men or women on the street.

It is with this in mind that over the last decade China has become a veritable laboratory of anti-corruption strategies. In 2009 over 30,000 corruption cases were brought before the courts and a small but significant number of individuals have been executed for their misdemeanours; in 2007, for example, Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China’s authority for regulating food and medicine, was executed for taking bribes in an attempt to cover up one of the many food contamination scandals that regularly seem to make the headlines in China. Both the government and the wider Chinese population subsequently agree that corruption is a major, if not the major, policy challenge facing the country today.

It is against this background that Bo’s case is so interesting, and so indicative of the challenge China’s elites are facing. Bo talked a great game, and declared war on something – the murky links between mafia-like organisations and public servants – that Chinese citizens really do care about. Yet the system he headed was itself built on corrupt foundations. It has ensured stability for three decades, but this is not a stability that is guaranteed to continue ad infinitum. The same applies over and beyond Chongqing. On paper, the Chinese government has sought to do much that sounds laudable: wide-ranging anti-corruption laws were introduced in 2006 and they were further tightened and expanded in 2010; anti-corruption compliance programmes have been developed; high profile anti-corruption summits have been held. And yet levels of corruption remain stubbornly high.  

On the one hand, Chinese officials want to do everything they can to look like they are reacting to public dissatisfaction with corrupt practices. Hence high-profile figures such as Bo pass laws, chuck people in prison (or simply knock off their heads) and generally stomp around sounding authoritative. But they know that many of the practices that are so abhorred are rooted in their system of governance, and changing this system will by definition weaken their ability to control it. That is simply not an option.

A number of points highlight this. Around 90 per cent of China’s dollar millionaires – of which in 2009 there were around 825,000, a number that is growing by around 15 per cent a year – have a middle or high ranking CP official in their extended family. Powerful vested interests therefore do very well out of the current system, no matter whether they themselves act in a corrupt fashion or not. Furthermore, levels of social capital – no matter how defined – are low, meaning that Chinese citizens often simply expect officials to act in what westerners are likely to understand as a corrupt fashion. Despite a vibrant online community (the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, is becoming increasingly hard for the online sensors to manage, for example), Chinese journalists and civil society activists do not really have the teeth to keep officials in check. CP managers up the food chain may hang certain individuals out to dry, but the lack of transparency in decision-making and the murky line of accountability ensures that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Levels of trust in both institutions and in civil servants are therefore lower than elsewhere, and petty corruption is now seen as part of everyday life.  

So what can we learn from Bo’s downfall? Firstly, China’s system of crony capitalism is built on a myriad of corrupt relationships. If you want to get to the top of this system, then you have to know how to play it – and that makes it virtually impossible to launch anything approaching a meaningful anti-corruption campaign. Corruption is at the system’s core. Whilst the system works, questions of legitimacy are not important. If – no, when – growth stalls, then these relationships will be questioned, and the instability that many in the CP fear more than anything else could quickly become a reality.

Secondly, and linked with this, it is important not just to look at what is said, or even what is written on paper, but to see how anti-corruption strategies and mechanisms (do or don’t) work in practice. The well-developed sets of anti-corruption laws in China will, for example, remain ineffective for as long as they can be contravened, side-stepped or just plain ignored by the state’s favoured sons (and daughters). Providing that you look after your support base, then princelings such as Bo Xilai can, and do, have little trouble in doing this. The challenge of remedying corruption in China therefore actually has one big similarity with that facing other countries; good governance structures – with transparency and accountability at their core, based around a consistent set of rules that allows no exemptions – are the key. And China – despite its recent economic boom – remains a long way from that right now.

Newspapers report on the arrest of Bo Xilai. Credit: AFP/Getty

Dr Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.