xijinping4by Steve Tsang.

Upon his promotion to the post of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore the leader of China, Xi Jinping declared that one of his top priorities was to tackle corruption. This is welcome indeed. But his pronouncement lacks credibility.

It is not because Xi is seen as personally corrupt. Even the penetrating Bloomberg report last year, which detailed the vast wealth his family members had amassed, did not suggest Xi was himself corrupt.

In parallel, The New York Times provided a more recent damning report that documented the phenomenal wealth Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members have built up during his time in office. This piece of impressive investigative journalism also highlighted that it came across no evidence to suggest Wen himself had been on the take. I don’t believe either Xi or Wen is personally corrupt.

Why, then, is Xi’s commitment to eliminate corruption unconvincing?

There are two basic reasons. Neither has anything to do with China’s tradition, heritage or genetics. Hong Kong has proved that, even without democracy, its Chinese population has been completely able to tackle corruption successfully. Hong Kong’s experience should be highly inspirational to the rest of China.

The first basic reason is the political system. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Leninist political system in place in China, albeit softened since the Dengist reforms to become a consultative variant, remains the most powerful or absolutist political system ever installed by mankind. There are no checks and balances against the party’s monopoly of power.

The near absolute power of the party is indeed pivotal to the political reality in China. For all the delegation of power to the regions and the arrogant assertiveness of provincial party secretaries, the party central can enforce almost any policy it deems essential to sustain the party’s continued hold on power. The only exception is in the mission to eradicate corruption, which is widely recognised as threatening the survival of the party.

The second basic factor is the fact that family members of top leaders routinely exploit their privileged positions for personal gain. This has become endemic whatever individual top leaders themselves think of corruption. This is why the Bloomberg and New York Times reports are important and illuminating.

The situation in mainland China today makes a striking contrast to the despicable situation that prevailed in Hong Kong at the start of the 1970s. In those days, syndicated corruption was so entrenched and corrosive that even life-saving public services such as firefighting could not be expected to be delivered without a bribe being paid first.

xi as General SecretaryOnce a particularly flagrant case – concerning the corruption of police chief superintendent Peter Godber – caught the imagination of the community, the Hong Kong government galvanised itself into action. In less than 10 years, it not only ended syndicated corruption but also 8instilled a new public ethos.

Since then, the people of Hong Kong, of Chinese stock or not, deem corruption as something beneath them, even though corruption by individuals still exists 8surreptitiously.

Why can the Hong Kong experience not be replicated on the mainland? It is because the two basic problems that plague China today did not exist in late colonial Hong Kong.

To begin with, the colonial government did not enjoy anything like absolute power. On the contrary, the British knew that colonial rule could only be sustained if it proved less objectionable than the obvious alternative, which was the return of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction. Corruption in late colonial Hong Kong might have been highly organised, but it was not systemic. For all the alleged reach of the syndicates in Hong Kong, it never got close to the top or relatives of top-level officials.

When governor Murray MacLehose realised that the credibility of the colonial government was at stake and acted, he faced no resistance from the top echelons. He also did not need to worry about having to send any relative to jail as part of his anti-corruption drive.

The relative comfort MacLehose enjoyed is not available to Xi. Ending the party’s monopoly of power may be above Xi’s pay grade, as the Politburo as a whole is not ready to do so. But he can still make a real impact without democratisation. Taking on his relatives is something he can do if he is so minded.

Until Xi makes a genuinely dramatic gesture, his anti-corruption drive will not be taken seriously.

The reality in China today is that even if Xi’s relatives do not ask for bribes, they will still find a stream of expensive gifts going their way. Unless they vigorously refuse and report all cases to Xi so that those who attempt to bribe are punished, this will not stop.

Until Xi is willing to jail his relatives or require them to report their friends who bribe them and send them to jail, his anti-corruption campaign will be interpreted in a cynical way. It will be taken by those in authority as a requirement that they should not flaunt their ill-gotten gains, and a few will be sacrificed to enable the party to claim successes.

To make his anti-corruption drive credible, Xi must take dramatic and drastic action that catches the imagination of the cadres and the general public. Nothing less will do.

This post first published in South China Morning Post on 2nd January 2013.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors



  1. “To make his anti-corruption drive credible, Xi must take dramatic and drastic action that catches the imagination of the cadres and the general public. Nothing less will do.”

    That is what BXL did. The rest we know.

    It should not be missed that many were and are quick to call for introduction of system(at)ic measures against corruption as the only credible weapon against corruption, rather than ‘dramatic and drastic actions’ such as Bo’s crackdown. Now that it appears that there is an attempt under way to make disclosure of information about personal wealth of officials compulsory, what is actually needed is ‘dramatic and drastic action’. oh, well…

    There are many kinds of corruption. Receiving or giving gifts is not the same as siphoning millions of pounds of public money out of a construction project which is again not the same as having access to strategically important resources that can be turned into economic or other forms of capital et cetera. To make a clear distinction is important as some kinds of corruption are illegal while others are (unfortunately) not , not only in China but anywhere, including UK and HK. (Btw, what are exactly the charges brought against Wen and Xi’s families?) Rather than counting on Xi’s relatives to report those that send gifts and offer bribes, shouldn’t the new anti-corruption drive reinforce the authority of anti-corruption bodies, introduce and strenghten measures and mechanisms related to transparency and accountability, as well as subsequently crack-down on corrupted officials and involved relatives and business partners, based on the solid and public evidence?

  2. The prescription of “dramatic and drastic action” to solve corruption in the PRC is at best naïve. Has it not been done many times during the reform period? Think of the executions of provincial governors, NPC members and others in power – though most such people get let off – and the tightening of laws again and again. And to what effect? None. The example of Hong Kong is interesting. But colonial HK as Steve notes was a long way from the rule of the absolutist Party-State in China. There was a viable civil society, even if not democratic; there was a separation between the executive, the administration and society that created a political and social space in which action could be organized to good effect. And voices heard, in the press and on the streets. Such were those actions that established the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) in 1974 that brought Peter Godber to trial. But no such ICAC-like independent agency could ever be allowed in China. All organisations are ultimately subject to Party control, lest they become a power base to oppose the CCP, thus the control of corruption busters in the single Party State inevitably falls into the hand of the corrupt or corruptible. The effect is naught.

    And Sensus Communis reminds us that corruption takes different forms, though the broad definition of corruption as “the abuse of public power for private gain” serves pretty well. We could think of corruption as simply theft, which it often is, through taking of bribes or obtaining control of a public asset. Or we might even think of it as rent seeking, the acquisition of rights over some form of (public) asset that in effect turns it into a private source of wealth. Again, the ubiquitous role of the Party and its associates in running the State Capitalist system of contemporary China makes attempts to stymy corruption, to put an end to the various deals and rent seeking behavior of state organisations, an assault on the ‘China model’ of state-orchestrated capitalist development that we have seen so successfully pursued these past 35 years. Not very likely, uh?

  3. Many thanks for the comments. I should have made it clear that the dramatic and drastic actions required are to underline the determination and commitment to tackle corruption and thus sends out a credible message. It is not ‘dramatic and drastic’ for the sake of it. The comparison with Bo Xilai misses the point, as Bo is heavily involved in corruption and in the abuse of power that he said he was countering.

    The crux of the matter, and the basis of Sima Hui’s justifiable pessimism, lies in the political system. Unless that is changed, something like the ICAC cannot be effective, even if an institution called by such a name were to be created. But let’s not forget that counter-corruption can be effective even in authoritarian system. Under Emperor Yongzheng of the Manchu/Qing Dynasty, he did successfully tackle corruption by taking a dramatic and drastic act that showed he meant business.

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