Take Two: Will a Second Attempt at Hacking Corruption in China Work?

Late 2010 to early 2011 was the heyday for India’s “I Paid A Bribe” (IPAB) website, which encouraged Indian citizens to report personal encounters with bribe solicitation from public officials. As Rick Messick previously reported, although the site experienced its share of challenges, the fact is that IPAB worked (and even thrived at times) and continues to be operational today. For digitally-inclined anti-kleptocrats, IPAB seemed like a prime example of a bottom-up approach to tackling corruption, one that could be emulated elsewhere. But in the summer of 2011, when a handful of concerned netizens in China attempted to import the IPAB model into China’s cyberspace, their attempts almost immediately failed. While these copycat sites enjoyed a brief period of temporary government approval (or at least ambivalence), they were all shut down well within half a year of founding, with most squashed within a month.

What the initial popularity of these sites indicated was a strong desire among Chinese netizens to function as self-appointed watchdogs who sniff out incidents of government corruption. (Indeed, between 2003 and 2010, China’s most popular media source saw a 20-fold increase in the number of anticorruption-related posts.) In late 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to tap into this newfound desire. The CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) created a corruption-reporting website that allowed citizens to access anticorruption laws, suggest proposals to anticorruption policy, and most importantly, “submit tips on current investigations or suspected cases of corruption.” In June 2015, the CCDI released a smartphone app version of the reporting site, which allows users to report up to 11 different categories of corrupt acts (e.g. using public funds for international travel and domestic tourism, and hosting extravagant banquets and parties), and even lets users upload pictures or videos of the act.

So will this new, Party-controlled version of crowdsourced anticorruption reporting prove more successful than its predecessor? Maybe. But there are also a number of reasons to be skeptical.

  1. Government-control. One worry is that this reporting app is yet another example of the CCP tightening its control over anticorruption efforts under the guise of citizen empowerment. By centralizing reporting to feed directly to the CCP, the government is implicitly sanctioning this—and only this—type of reporting on corrupt officials. In other words, those who resort to other forums do so at their own risk. This past November, the CCP expelled, and the government is now prosecuting, the editor-in-chief of Xinjiang’s official newspaper for writing about corruption. Similarly, there have been several reports of anticorruption activists being harassed and threatened by police for publicly (i.e. not on the app or site) posting pictures of local official corruption. Other less consequential but still troubling trends include the fact that discussion of corruption is one of the most often censored topics on China’s popular mobile messaging platform (WeChat).
  1. Lack of transparency. Another problem with the government-controlled reporting system is that there is little transparency in what happens to the submitted reports. There is no information on the CCDI website or app that indicates how the government intends to investigate the reports. While the CCDI publishes a weekly “wall of shame” report, which cites hundreds on officials for minor infractions, it is unclear where these citations came from, and whether those on the report are penalized.
  1. Reliance on third-party reporting. Whereas IPAB only allowed users to report first-hand incidents of dealing with bribe-extorting officials, the CCDI app allows (indeed, seems to encourage) third party observers to report instances of corruption that they either witnessed, or perhaps just heard about. This leads to two significant problems. First, allowing third-party reporting may open the floodgates to very large numbers of inaccurate reports, with potentially crippling consequences for the app. Such inaccuracy is likely given that citizens have to be able to recognize public officials engaging in corrupt acts, especially when they are out of uniform and are not usually conspicuous figures (and, in the case of rumors or second-hand information, such information is often unreliable). A high volume of low-value information is not likely to prove very helpful, particularly since the app lacks a discernable and reliable mechanism for authorities to check the accuracy of any report. Second, and relatedly, the app’s reliance on recognition (or rumor) may yield many “false positives” from the indiscriminate reporting of individuals who look like they could be public officials engaging in corrupt behavior. In a culture where “saving face” is everything, false accusations made through these government channels can seriously damage an individual’s reputation and leave no opportunity for vindication. For example, a teacher at a school in Jiansu province who was the target of a report on the app complained that the cited event—a large banquet he threw for his son’s wedding where he accepted red envelopes from guests on behalf of his son—was legitimate, comported with cultural customs (giving and receiving red envelopes at celebrations is a ubiquitous Chinese tradition), and not the type of incident the app was created to capture.

None of the above totally trumps the fact that there is at least some optimism to be found in this round of technological approaches to fighting corruption. After all, a government that gives everyday citizens a chance to partake in the anticorruption fight is an improvement from one that categorically suppresses any anticorruption reporting. What citizens should be wary of, however, is becoming too complacent about or reliant on these centrally controlled signs of “change.” Already, there is some sense that the CCDI app and website signals changing times for previously suppressed voices. As one professor who was handpicked by CCDI officials to appear on an anticorruption talk show mentioned, he was allowed to express any opinion without “a preset script…like [in] an academic discussion.” But what his and others’ optimism about this new era of purported greater freedom of speech seem to forget is that China is a country of many voices (not all of which are laudatory of the government’s recent policies), and as his own experience illustrates, the government will only select and air those voices that it knows parrot its own. Little has changed for the more critical: They are still wondering, as they have been for generations, how they can voice their criticisms of government policies, and what price will they pay for doing so.

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