Why nailing 'tigers' won’t reduce corruption in China

December 23, 2014 08:46
Publicity associated with the arrest of senior retired officials such as Zhou Yongkang on corruption charges naturally increases the perception that corruption is widespread in China. Photo: Reuters

More than two years after Xi Jinping gained power as China’s leader, his anti-corruption campaign shows little sign of slowing down. Instead, it is now spreading its wings to other countries.

It isn’t known exactly how many Chinese officials have fled abroad with ill-gotten gains. But a 2011 People's Bank of China report put the monetary value at US$128.8 billion.

A related problem is officials who have remained in China but who have sent their families abroad with their wealth. Last week, Xinhua reported that 1,000 such “naked officials” had been demoted. It said such officials use their families “as a conduit transferring their ill-gotten assets abroad and in preparation for their own flight”.

Earlier this month, China handed the United States a list of more than a hundred alleged fugitives from justice whom it would like returned to face trial for corruption-related offences.

William Brownfield, the State Department’s representative at the law enforcement talks with China, said the two sides had agreed to “a finite number of individuals and agreed to develop a strategy to address each of those".

This suggests that there is a long, laborious process ahead and that only a minority of cases will be dealt with.

Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, also have been asked by China to cooperate.

By and large, western countries have in principle agreed to cooperate. The trouble is that China has not signed extradition treaties with these countries. And they tend to take judicial processes much more seriously than China does.

Instead, the Chinese process is widely seen as politicized, from investigation through to trial. The Communist Party, not the government, is responsible for conducting investigations because all corrupt officeholders are party members since non-Communists do not rise to positions of great influence.

As a Dec. 15 article in the China Daily said, the disciplinary committees of the Chinese Communist Party “have hardly any equivalent bodies overseas, so many countries don’t know how to deal with their requests”.

This is certainly a problem. In China, the government doesn’t enter the picture until the party is finished with its investigation. And if the party decides to prosecute, the case is turned over to the procuratorate at various levels to deal with the actual prosecution.

Even countries that have extradition treaties with China are unlikely to heed a request from the ruling party, rather than the government, for the return of suspects and the repatriation of funds. Moreover, at present, China has extradition treaties mostly with developing countries, whereas absconding officials by and large head for the bright lights of the developed world.

China has attempted to obtain greater foreign cooperation through other anti-corruption networks.

Last month, for example, when China hosted the APEC forum in Beijing, it established the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation corruption law enforcement network, which will seek cooperation on tracking cases across borders. The APEC members also issued a strongly worded Beijing Declaration on Fighting Corruption.

However, China was distinctly unhappy when, despite its anti-corruption efforts, the corruption perception index issued by Transparency International in early December noted a drop in China’s ranking from 80th in 2013 to 100th this year.

The Chinese government, however, felt that the problem was not with China but with Transparency International.

“China’s resolve to fight corruption and its notable achievements in this regard are clear for all to see,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

“Scores and ranking on China given by the Corruption Perceptions Index 2014 is in total contradiction with the remarkable progress China has registered in anti-corruption. The Chinese people would have a fair opinion on the visible achievements from China’s anti-corruption campaign, and the Corruption Perceptions Index 2014 issued by Transparency International cannot serve as a standard in this regard.”

Actually, as Zhu Lijia, a professor of public policy at the Chinese Academy of Governance, noted, TI’s index measures perceived levels of graft, so the publicity associated with the arrest of such senior retired officials as Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Xu Caihou, the country’s former top military man, on corruption-related cases would naturally increase the perception that corruption is widespread in China.

As long as China does not fundamentally change its system of crony capitalism and prohibits the press from reporting freely on corruption, the Chinese system will continue to breed corrupt officials. The netting of corrupt “tigers” as well as “flies” may well not result in a drop in long-term corruption and or in an improvement in China’s international image.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.