China's Corruption Crackdown Redefines "Business As Usual"
Though graft is reduced, there are new negative side-effects to the way public officials approach their work in what is billed as the *new normal*.
BEIJING — China's slowing economy and far-reaching efforts to combat corruption have altered the relationship between government and business. Some say the changes have set in motion a "new normal" in private-public affairs.
The graft-fighting campaign has created a climate of fear where public officials are wary of being caught up in a corruption investigation tactfully refuse any contact with the business world. But in doing so, they also end up shirking their duties, Bao Yujun, the former vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, concluded in the recently held Boao Forum For Asia, an annual conference.
Fatuous, lazy and idle governance is nothing new in China. Recently, though, it has become an even more pronounced problem as evidenced by Premier Li Keqiang's decision, for the first time, to address the issue in his work report earlier this year.
To a certain extent, how business and government interact is the thermometer for observing how advanced is a society in both political and commercial arenas. When the two get too close this tends to become a hotbed of collusion. As the numerous recently disclosed cases of dishonest officials show, there are no shortage of abnormal relationships with businesses.
Unfortunately, civil servants grew accustomed to an "I'll do you a favor if you pay" way of doing things. Now they neither take money, nor do they work.
For a long time China's private businesses relied on the good graces of the government, which dictated policy as it saw fit. Since President Xi Jinping took power and announced the country's deepening reforms, systems and the rule of law have replaced policy whims. Private sector relations with the government are having to follow suit, to settle into a different kind of "business as usual".
One result, as already mentioned, is that certain officials are neglecting their jobs. Overall, though, the crackdown on corruption has played a positive role in forming the country's new normal government-business relations. It has also helped the State establish stronger institutions and laws.
President Xi urged his party underlings early on to maintain a courteous relationship with businesses but not to confuse the limits between the private and the public. His warning, which served as a kind of moral line in the sand, ought to be accompanied by a "technical" dividing line as well. Public officials need to know in detail what they can and cannot do with regards to business relations.
The state also needs to extend its anti-graft efforts to deal not just with corrupt public officials, but also idle and indifferent civil servants. The exercise of power, in other words, needs to be regulated.
As Premier Li pointed out in his address to the National People's Congress in March, China is looking to govern the country with law, to strengthen innovation and honesty, to make the government more service-oriented, and to enforce its executive force and credibility. Not only is the government to be upright; it must also be highly efficient.
"Officials with power are not to be willful," as Premier Li put it. Every government agent's function and responsibility is to be clearly defined and complemented with a full range of oversight mechanisms. Only if the unscrupulous or reckless behavior of Chinese officials is reduced to a minimum will the relationship between the government and business not only be normal, but healthy.