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

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

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.