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Tackling corruption in China

Gui Hao / gdJanuary 27, 2015

The anti-corruption campaign in China shows no signs of fatigue. Reports about officials ensnared in graft investigations are being released on a daily basis. But the problem won't vanish without reforms, experts say.

China Gerichtsprozess Liu Tienan 10.12.2014
Image: Reuters/Langfang Intermediate People's Court

Trouble's brewing in Beijing. For centuries, China's capital city has been the city of bureaucracy, with the highest ratio of civil servants to citizens in the country. From here, emperors ruled the country for the last two dynasties. In mid-January 2015, the dreaded members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) for the Communist Party of China (CPC) got together to investigate corrupt party members.

Since Xi Jinping took over the reins of the CPC in 2013, new cases of corruption have consistently appeared on the commission's website.

'Zero tolerance'

Many people in China dream of landing a government position. So after graduating from university applicants must complete a complex aptitude test, which only two percent of them pass. The salary is modest, but what makes the job so attractive is the chance of achieving the status of a distinguished "Mandarin." Such officials not only exercise the power of the state, but also receive additional perks – a topic which no one wants to publicly discuss.

However, the origin of these "bonuses" is of great interest to CCDI investigators. Every day, up to 800 complaints arrive in their offices. This is why in the final communiqué of their mid-January meeting they stressed there was "no border and no taboo, but zero tolerance" in the war against corruption.

Internal power struggle

According to official figures, 68 high-ranking party members were investigated in 2014. Among them were China's ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang and the former deputy chief of the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou.

The official prosecution of Zhou, who stands accused of corruption, betrayal of secrets, abuse of office, and multiple accounts adultery, symbolized a break in tradition. Until his retirement in 2012, Zhou was a permanent member of China's Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), and therefore part of the most powerful inner-circle in the East Asian nation. Three years later, he could face the death penalty.

Chinese President and party leader Xi, who worked alongside Zhou in the PSC for five years, wants to convey an image of someone capable of showing no mercy, even at the highest echelons of the party. Several officials and managers from state enterprises with direct or indirect links to Zhou had already been purged. Female state TV presenters, some of whom were suspected of having long-term affairs with Zhou, were taken off the air. Was this the result of an internal power struggle?

This is about "the radical overthrow of a particular section of the ruling elite," says Nora Sausmikat, China program director at the Germany-based "Asienhaus" Foundation. The government's actions do not necessarily contribute to addressing the roots of corruption in the Chinese system.

Zhou Yongkang chinesischer Spitzenpolitiker ARCHIVBILD 12.03.2011
The official prosecution of Zhou Yongkang symbolized a break in traditionImage: Reuters

This "disempowerment" is taking place in the party, the government, and the military, all areas where such scandals can be concealed from the public. On January 15th, Xinhua announced that 16 generals of the Chinese armed forces were under investigation "due to serious violations of party discipline."

Driven to suicide

The tough anti-corruption campaign is apparently driving many officials to take desperate measures. Nanfang Zhoumo or "Southern Weekly," the critical newspaper from the Chinese city of Guangzhou, listed 32 known cases of suicide by civil servants or officials in 2014. The deaths are allegedly linked to corruption investigations being led against the officials, according to Reuters.

"A corruption investigation normally ends with the suspect's death," a former party official told Reuters, "because it is difficult gain access to the assets of his family. Suicide also ends the daily nightmares friends of the accused officials have to endure. They then take care of the bereaved."

General Xu Caihou
68 high-ranking party members were investigated in 2014, including the former deputy chief of the Central Military Commission, Xu CaihouImage: J.Watson/AFP/GettyImages

Cases of rampant corruption are passed on by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to the public prosecutor's office. Legal proceedings then follow, the outcome of which are decided internally. If a judgment of "minor fault" is delivered, the officials are "only" expelled from the party and ousted from office.

Those keen on concealing and securing their assets would, until recently, send their relatives to live abroad. Once family members became legal residents, they would funnel the ill-gotten gains to offshore tax havens, leaving the bureaucrats with few assets in China. Officials involved in such schemes were known as "luo guan" or "naked officials."

Entrenched in the system

Since last year, China's Guandong Province has been cracking down on "naked officials." According to state-run news agency Xinhua, some 200 public employees of the southern province have asked their families to return, while 866 agreed to accept demotion, including nine at mayoral level.

A study published by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed nearly 22,000 offshore clients with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong. Thousands of Chinese names were also found in confidential documents, including that of the daughter of former Chinese Premier Li Peng, Wen Jiabao's son and Xi Jinping's brother-in-law.

Since the year 2000, funds and company shares worth an estimated four billion USD have been illegally funneled out of China. By comparison, common Chinese citizens are not allowed to transfer more than 50,000 USD abroad without special permission.

APEC Gipfel Xi Jinping 11.11.2014 Peking
President Xi launched his anti-corruption drive shortly after becoming president in 2013Image: Reuters

Can somebody put a stop to the corruption practices of China's "flies" (low-level officials) and "tigers" (high level officials)? Transparency International is of the view that effective oversight through the media and civic participation is indispensable to achieve this.

However, China expert Sausmikat is skeptical that corruption levels can be curbed under the current structure. "The whole system is based on mechanisms designed to encourage corruption. There are no independent institutions allowed to monitor both politicians and political institutions."