Delegates at China's National People's Congress meeting in March 2012. Photo: Getty
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China’s billionaire politicians quadruple their wealth

Despite their low official government salaries, at this week’s National People’s Congress annual meeting, there will be 86 renminbi billionaires and China’s richest politicians have quadrupled their wealth in the past eight years. But is there a right level to set politicians’ pay?

On paper, Chinese politicians are pretty hard up compared to their US counterparts: China’s president, Xi Jinping, earns $19,000, compared to Barack Obama’s $400,000 salary, according to the International Business Times. And yet, while most Chinese politicians are at pains to hide their real incomes, the Financial Times reported that this week’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, will include 86 renminbi billionaires (equivalent to being worth over £97,725). According to the FT’s calculations, the country’s wealthiest politicians saw their wealth quadruple over the past eight years, while the richest 1000 people in the country saw their wealth triple – suggesting that most ordinary people in China are right that the best way to get rich is via political connections. The Chinese government’s high-profile anti-graft campaign doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

In 2012, it was estimated that the richest 70 members of China’s NPC have a larger combined wealth ($89.8bn in 2011) than that of all 535 members of the US congress, the president and his Cabinet and the nine Supreme Court judges. US politicians are not exactly poor, and according to World Bank estimates GDP per capita in the US is $51,749 compared to $6,091 in China. And, on paper at least, China’s billionaire politicians are communist officials. 

This raises some interesting questions about how much politicians ought to be paid. The most important defence against corruption is strong and well-enforced anti-graft laws combined with a much harder-to-define shift in social norms: in too many countries public officials believe themselves entitled to bribes and sweeteners and when corruption is pervasive, it becomes normal.

But there is an argument to be made that if you pay officials too little – and $19,000 to head up a country of over a billion is probably too little – this only encourages them to seek extra incomes elsewhere.

Some argue that high civil servant and politician salaries also promotes professionalism – Singapore is often held up as an example of a country that has managed to attract the brightest talent into government by offering salaries that compete with the top private-sector jobs. The counter-argument is that you want to attract people into politics who aren’t especially motivated by money.

The Economist published interesting data comparing MPs salaries to GDP per capita across various countries. Nigeria comes up top, because MPs are paid over 116 times more than the country’s per capita GDP – suggesting that high official income alone isn’t a strong disincentive against corruption. Kenya and Ghana are next on the list, with a ratio of 76 and 30 respectively. In Britain, politicians are paid around 2.7 times GDP per capita, while in the US it’s almost quadruple.

But, if Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian officials were paid, say just triple per capita GDP, they’d be earning $4,655, $2,829 and $4,815 respectively. Should we also consider levelling the playing field so that officials of low-income countries aren't the paupers at the tables of international summits?

Setting the right level for official government salaries is a complex issue, but China is clearly getting it very wrong indeed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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French voters face a choice: Thatcherism or fascism

Today's Morning Call. 

Francois Fillon has been handed the task of saving France from a Marine Le Pen presidency and, by extension, the European Union from collapse, after a landslide win over Alain Juppé in the second round of the centre-right Republican party primary, taking 67 per cent of the vote to Juppé's 33 per cent. 

What are his chances? With the left exhausted, divided and unpopular, it's highly likely that it will be Fillon who makes it into the second round of the contest (under the French system, unless one candidate secures more than half in the first round, the top two go to a run off). 

Le Pen is regarded as close-to-certain of winning the first round and is seen as highly likely to be defeated in the second. That the centre-right candidate looks - at least based on the polls - to be the most likely to make it into the top two alongside her puts Fillon in poll position if the polls are right.

As I explained in my profile of him, his path to victory relies on the French Left being willing to hold its nose and vote for Thatcherism - or, at least, as close as France gets to Thatcherism - in order to defeat fascism. It may be that the distinctly Anglo-Saxon whiff of his politics - "Thatcherite Victor vows sharp shock for France" is the Times splash - exerts too strong a smell for the left to ignore.

The triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States have the left and the centre nervous. The far right is sharing best practice and campaign technique across borders, boosting its chances. 

Of all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most avoidable, so I won't make one. However, there are a few factors that may lie in the way of Le Pen going the way of Trump and Brexit. Hostility towards the European project and white  racial reaction are both deeply woven into the culture and politics of the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. The similarities between Vote Leave and Trump are overstated, but both were fighting on home turf with the wind very much at their backs. 

While there's a wider discussion to be had about the French state's aggressive policy of secularism and diversity blindness and its culpability for the rise of Le Pen, as far as the coming contest is concerned, the unity of the centre against the extremes is just as much a part of French political culture as Euroscepticism is here in Britain. So it would be a far bigger scale of upheaval if Le Pen were to win, though it is still possible.

There is one other factor that Fillon may be able to rely on. He, like Le Pen, is very much a supporter of granting Vladimir Putin more breathing space and attempting to reset Russia's relationship with the West. He may face considerably less disruption from that quarter than the Democrats did in the United States. Still, his campaign would be wise to ensure they have two-step verification enabled.

A WING AND A PRAYER

Eleanor Mills bagged the first interview with the new PM in the Sunday Times, and it's widely reported in today's papers. Among the headlines: the challenge of navigating  Brexit keeps Theresa May "awake at night", but her Anglican faith helps her through. She also lifted the lid on Philip May's value round the home. Apparently he's great at accessorising. 

THE NEVERENDING STORY

John Kerr, Britain's most experienced European diplomat and crossbench peer, has said there is a "less than 50 per cent" chance that Britain will negotiate a new relationship with the EU in two years and that a transitional deal will have to be struck first, resulting in a "decade of uncertainty". The Guardian's Patrick Wintour has the story

TROUBLED WATERS OVER OIL

A cross-party coalition of MPs, including Caroline Lucas and David Lammy, are at war with their own pension fund: which is refusing to disclose if its investments include fossil fuels. Madison Marriage has the story in the FT

TRUMPED UP CHARGES?

The Ethics Council to George W Bush and Barack Obama say the Electoral College should refuse to make Donald Trump President, unless he sells his foreign businesses and puts his American ones in a genuine blind trust. Trump has said he plans for his children to run his businesses while he is in the Oval Office and has been involved in a series of stories of him discussing his overseas businesses with foreign politicians. The New York Times has detailed the extentof Trump's overseas interests. 

TODAY'S MORNING CALL...

...is brought to you by the City of London. Their policy and resources chairman Mark Boleat writes on Brexit and the City here.

CASTROFF

Fidel Castro died this weekend. If you're looking for a book on the region and its politics, I enjoyed Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat, which you can buy on Amazon or Hive.

BALLS OUT

Ed Balls was eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing last night, after finishing in the bottom two and being eliminated by the judges' vote.  Judge Rinder, the daytime TV star, progressed to the next round at his expense. 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Helen reviews Glenda Jackson's King Lear.

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