Doubters Question China’s Corruption Push
By Russell Leigh Moses
China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Reuters
The recent study examining the lives and labors of Communist party cadres in Shandong province is noteworthy not only because it shows that many Chinese officials have a tough time staying clean.
It’s also a telling example of the tension within China’s political circles about the best way to wage war against corruption.
The Xi leadership’s preferred approach thus far has followed two complementary tracks.
The first track has featured well-publicized takedowns of “tigers”–high-ranking party officials and even military commanders who have felt the wrath of the anticorruption crusade and will likely face trial. Making examples out of once-powerful figures like former security czar Zhou Yongkang shows both the public and party ranks that Beijing is dead serious about stopping graft.
The second part of Xi’s strategy is shaking up the way party cadres work. By pushing officials to focus on making policies that actually matter to people, Xi is also striving to “make cadres more honest and pragmatic simply by carrying out activities that will reflect better on them.” Those who don’t change their work style are subject to rectification campaigns and risk becoming political road kill.
But there are others who aren’t so sure that the current emphasis on cracking down by punishing officials will bring good results. Those skeptics say that there may be more effective ways of fighting graft in the system. One way is to look more critically at some of the ways China’s political system operates.
That’s a major reason why the Shandong study was so prominently featured across state media in the past few days. It supports a more complex view of China’s corruption problem. Specifically, it suggests that cadres might not immediately begin behaving badly. Instead, they become susceptible to a political system built more for self-promotion than sound policy-making.
According to the Shandong findings, the way forward isn’t so much reconnecting cadres to citizens. Rather, it suggests that officials should be able to rejoin their families and build a better social life. The “new normal” that Xi and his allies like to refer to isn’t normal at all, the study suggests. In fact, it’s putting pressure on officials to work even harder—leaving the root causes of corruption in the system long after the current crusade has expired.
Others voices in China are calling for different approaches.
One group favors a simple zero-tolerance policy where gifts of any sort are concerned, blaming officials for simply not being moral enough to resist enticement.
Some others want the party to stop being so concerned about what cadres do in the darkness and to start looking at what government isn’t doing well in the daytime.
For example, as one essay has it, Beijing should worry less about monitoring public opinion for dissent and focus more on acting on the reasons for discontent. Expressions of disgust from netizens aren’t signs of instability, this argument goes, but echoes of important work left undone. Castigating cadres for being corrupt has merit, this argument goes, but what’s really ailing the Chinese body politic isn’t graft but bad governance. Slapping down cadres and citizens might solve one challenge, but it leaves other social problems to smolder.
Another alternative approach calls for the party to move away from relying on abrupt inspections designed to catch cadres committing crimes. Instead it appeals for building better institutions and procedures, such as more regular audits and oversight. Combating corruption is fine, this argument goes, but clean government should be aiming to create better governance, not just cowed cadres.
After all, Beijing has historically been woefully reactive when it comes to enforcing its authority, believing that punishment after the fact solves problems. According to this point of view, fear is the best force for forward progress in the long run.
These dissents from the party line aren’t dangerous departures, but part of a larger debate about reforms in China. That’s the good news, because Xi’s leadership represents a general recognition in the Communist party that China needs new thinking to face new challenges.
The bad news is that the debate still has sharp boundaries, at least where activists are concerned. Restricting public input of any sort hampers Beijing’s ability to brainstorm other ways of tackling China’s corruption problem.
That even semi-official alternative analyses such as the Shandong study are appearing at all in the state media is a further sign that Xi’s rule isn’t dictatorial.
But it’s also a caution. It suggests that there are some who still believe Xi’s anticorruption crusade won’t ultimately do enough to stamp out the problem, and who want other options for political change placed on the table for discussion. That’s a debate that Xi surely doesn’t want.
Russell Leigh Moses is the Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.