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Why The Fight Against Corruption In China May Finally Be For Real

Shanghai by night
Shanghai by night
Chen Jieren

BEIJING - After the end of last month's 18thNational Congress of the Communist Party of China, China seems to have witnessed a nationwide wave of corruption investigations against the rich and powerful. First several high-ranking officials from Canton were dismissed from their posts. Then it was the turn of Li Chungcheng, the Deputy Party Secretary of Sichuan Province, who had just been elected as an alternate member of Party's Central Committee to be put under investigation. Two other cases soon folllowed.

This succession of cases has dazzled the public, astonished officialdom and aroused attention from abroad. Public opinion generally sees this as an indication that the spirit of the 18th Congress is taking hold. Individual authorities are following up on the instructions and requirements for anti-corruption work laid down by Xi Jinping, the newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party.

While Chinese officials have themselves set off an upsurge of anti-corruption actions, the Chinese public has also started discussing calls to set up a system for curbing corruption. They are listening in particular to the advice of several influential intellectuals who are calling for the establishment of a fixed system for preventing corruption.

I am confident that the public demands, after years of being ignored, will now finally enter the “discernment” of the decision makers in Beijing. Why the change in attitude? And what actions will be taken?

In the past, many of China’s anti-corruption actions were only vigorous in appearance. Rather than actually aiming to curb corruption, they were the tools of political struggles and attacks between officialdom’s internal cliques. Such anti-corruption convinces neither the corrupt officials nor the people.

An even more important point is that anti-corruption, which begins as a purely legal issue, is always bound to wind up as a political one. Whether or not to arrest a corrupt official, when to arrest him, exactly who is to be arrested and who is not, as well as whether the case is to be publicized, these all become important factors for political consideration.

What decision makers are most worried about is that too much exposure of corrupt officials may affect their image and shake the pattern of some sort of balance in the party.

There are in fact two very sensitive features in this wave of anti-corruption. First the Party's Central Committee has only just elected its members and one of them was immediately put under investigation, which was unimaginable before. Within their conformist thinking, the party cadres would have seen it as scandalous to risk damaging the party’s image.

Listening to public opinion

Second, the Shanxi Deputy-Director was removed from his office just because his son was guilty of drunk driving and had made trouble. The police have always been one of the Party's important tools for safeguarding its rule. Normally, the policy makers have always been particularly tolerant towards them, in particular when it concerns high-ranking police officers. But this time the unwritten pact was broken.

In addition, the Chinese government has begun to show some positive interaction between authority and public opinion. Take the exposure of the video of Lei Zhengfu’s having sex as an example. The Communist Party has demonstrated trust, tolerance and even dependence on public opinion. Were it to have happened in the past, the usual practice would have been to first block the expression of public opinion, and then try to refute the rumors.

Not only has the government tolerated the Internet buzz and listened to the people, but also it responded in a timely fashion with an investigation. Several websites that had been banned have now been discreetly restored.

Obviously, this round of anti-corruption action has won praise for China’s new leaders. At the beginning of the new phase of leadership, it was important to mobilize the propaganda machine and present a good image. The corruption that discredits the Party is not to be tolerated. Leaders have realized that not only will exposing their colleagues' ugliness not damage their own image but rather gives people an honest and pragmatic impression of the Party.

Chinese leaders have realized that although anti-corruption work is closely related to politics, it is above all a matter of rules rather than political skill. If the anti-corruption work still follows the political thinking of the past, not only will the sacked corrupt officials as well as the public be unconvinced, those who are not sacked will also be snickering. Only if the rule of law is the only anti-corruption benchmark will fair results and convincing social effects be achieved.

In practice the attack on corruption needs to follow only two principles - the facts and the system. Various oversight mechanisms should be fully mobilized, in particular public opinion and public supervision. Only if the door to fight corruption is kept truly open can the hidden corrupt be exposed, which becomes a standing deterrence for others.

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