Could China have an ICAC?

November 30, 2015 08:41
More than 80 per cent of Hongkongers said the ICAC was effective in fighting corruption, a Beijing magazine reported. Photo: Xinhua

People in the mainland have been following with astonishment the legal action against Donald Tsang Yam-kuen -- “the biggest tiger” ever to be brought before a Hong Kong court, one Beijing magazine calls him.

They are astonished at the triviality of the charges against him – failure to disclose the leasing of a luxury apartment and the name of an architect who worked on that apartment – negligible compared with the sums stolen by central government and Communist Party officials.

Second, they are astonished at his seniority – it would be like an indictment against Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin, former heads of the mainland government.

Third, they are astonished at the body that brought the case against him, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

Should the mainland have such an institution, and could it exist there?

Since he became general secretary of the party at its 18th congress in November 2012, Xi Jinping has launched a campaign against corruption not seen since the Cultural Revolution.

It has indicted more than 100,000 officials for corruption, bribery and abuse of power; they are mostly politicians and civil servants, including more than 100 of senior rank.

The agency responsible is the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, under Wang Qishan, with military and judicial institutions working with and under him.

The public strongly supports this campaign.

People say it has had a deterrent effect on the low-level public servants with whom they interact in their daily lives – traffic policemen and district officials who give out permits and licences: no need to pay the bribes they did before.

They are pleased to see corrupt city mayors and party chiefs go to prison and the apartments and cars of their mistresses confiscated.

But, for most people, the campaign is both to fight bribery and also to remove from office opponents of Xi, Wang and their networks across the country -- part anti-corruption and part power struggle.

That does not bode well for China’s future.

It means that the leader who succeeds Xi in 2022 can do the same thing – purge the bureaucracy of those who oppose him and whom he considers a threat, including Xi and his supporters.

So would China not be better off with its own version of ICAC, an institution that would not be subject to political control by national leaders?

This is a subject too sensitive to be answered directly by the mainland media.

But Vista, a weekly news magazine published in Beijing, tested the waters in its Nov. 18 issue with a story on the ICAC.

It described its nondescript 25-story official headquarters in North Point that you can walk past without noticing and its history since its foundation in 1974.

Floors 10 to 20 contain the case officers; they use a different lift from that serving floors 1 to 9.

The ninth floor has a coffee shop and restaurant where visitors are received.

By June this year, the ICAC had received 121,850 reports, with real names now used in 80 per cent of them, compared with less than one-third in the early years. This is a sign of public confidence in the institution.

Within 48 hours, the agency must give a response to the person reporting.

It has four advisory committees with prominent citizens to oversee its work – Advisory Committee on Corruption, Operations Review Committee, Corruption Prevention Advisory Committee and Citizens Advisory Committee on Community Relations.

Each is chaired by a person who is not a civil servant.

The magazine reported strong public support – 80.6 per cent of Hongkongers said it was effective in fighting corruption and 96.9 praised its work, saying that it helped to keep society honest, fair and just.

Eighteen years after the handover and despite the bitter controversy over Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s immunity from ICAC prosecution, that is high praise.

Is such an institution possible in the mainland?

Under the communist system of governance, it is out of the question.

Even more so since Xi took power: he has concentrated power more than any leader since chairman Mao Zedong and denounced western governance, which calls for separation of powers among executive, legislature and judiciary.

His argument is that such a system is completely unsuitable for China and would lead to social disorder, political fighting and even civil war.

The only way to maintain “stability” and economic growth enough to provide sufficient employment is a single source of authority.

Another reason is that the methods of the ICAC – and western criminal systems – are too slow, time-consuming and complicated.

The scale of corruption in China and the numbers involved require rapid and drastic prosecution.

That is why the job was given to Wang, one of the most competent people in the government -- many think he, and not Li Keqiang, should have been prime minister.

So China may set up a CAC – but not an ICAC.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.