The People’s Republic of China recently uncovered the biggest vote-buying scandal since its founding in 1949. On September 13, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national legislature, dismissed 45 of the 102 NPC representatives from Liaoning province for securing their seats in the NPC through vote buying. These NPC representatives had apparently bribed representatives to the Liaoning provincial Congress, which elects NPC representatives; 523 out of the 619 Liaoning provincial congress representatives were also implicated in this scandal, and have either resigned or been removed for election rigging, rendering the Liaoning provincial legislature inoperable. The central authorities stated that the “unprecedented” bribery scandal challenged the “bottom line” of China’s socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
For many observers, reports of this vote-buying scandal came as a surprise. Some commentators wondered why people would risk getting caught and punished for corruption, just to secure a seat in a legislature that has been derided as little more than a rubber stamp. The most plausible explanation is that a seat on the NPC facilitates access to the rich and powerful, and it is this consideration, rather than the mostly symbolic power of the legislature itself, that motivates candidates to buy votes in NPC elections. (See here, here and here). There is, however, a second puzzle about the recent vote-buying scandal—one that is in fact more puzzling and important, though it has not received as much attention: Why do CCP leaders care about electoral corruption in NPC elections, if the NPC merely rubber-stamps party decisions? True, the CCP under President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a top priority—but given the prevalence of corruption in so many areas of Chinese government, many of which have immediate practical consequences, why target electoral corruption in the NPC?
The question becomes even more interesting when one considers that calling attention to vote-buying in NPC elections—a form of corruption that might otherwise not attract much attention—poses certain risks to the CCP. First, even if the NPC is mostly a rubber stamp legislature, it represents the symbolic core of state power, and is central to the CCP’s “socialist democracy,” a model the Party has long used to resist the Western-style multi-party democracy. As one commentator put it has observed, the exposure of the NPC vote-buying scandal has torn a large hole in the country’s “democracy cloak.” Second, exposing widespread corrupt practices could also increase pressure for systemic reforms. So why did CCP leaders choose to crack down on corruption in the legislature so openly?
One popular theory, advanced by those skeptical of President Xi’s anticorruption campaign more generally, holds that the current leaders are using the vote-buying scandal to eliminate prominent figures in rival political factions—in particular, those aligned with former President Jiang Zemin. Another explanation is that the investigation into massive election rigging was triggered three years ago when candidates recommended by the central authorities failed to win the Liaoning election. In other words, the expulsion of these NPC members may be a way for the central authorities to remind other NPC members of the consequences of not obeying central orders. There may well be something to these explanations, but they can’t be the whole story. After all, the CCP could have stopped with punishing the four most-senior Liaoning officials for corruption and election rigging, if the CCP’s only aims were to punish rival political factions and reassert its control. So why did the CCP go so much further?
It seems that the CCP’s crackdown on electoral fraud in the NPC shows the Party’s ambivalent attitude towards corruption and reform. On one hand, it reflects the Party’s deep concern and genuine commitment to reducing corruption wherever it is detected. Four years into his presidency, President Xi continues to warn the Party of the threat corruption poses to the Party’s rule and continues to fulfill his vow to crack down on corruption at all levels of the Party apparatus and government bureaucracy. Cracking down on corruption in the legislature, the foundation of the state power, shows the continuing commitment and builds up the campaign’s credibility. On the other hand, however, the Party has not acknowledged the electoral system’s inherent flaws, particularly its lack of transparency and its lack of real authority. Nor has the CCP embraced the idea of structural reform. It is admittedly true, as noted above, that by cracking down on corruption in the legislature, and in the process calling attention to that very problem, the CCP may be “tearing a hole in China’s cloak of democracy.” But the CCP is choosing to tear the hole itself, so that it simultaneously can demonstrate its resolution and can keep the issue under control. And in fact the CCP has kept the issue under control quite effectively: It has framed the problem as a few bad apples trading money for power, published limited information, and prevented the strictly controlled mainland media from digging further into the scandal. (Caixin, a prominent online news publisher, once published details about the dismissed lawmakers but later removed those articles.) Only a little more than one month after the scandal, on October 21, a provisional NPC-led committee organized a meeting in Liaoning where 447 new legislative representatives were elected to the Liaoning legislature.
Thus it looks like the saga was concluded with more inner-Party meetings at all levels learning lessons from the scandal but without mentioning any structural reforms. The lessons, like the usual Party rhetoric, focus on political and disciplinary admonishment and education. The problem is that if this is really the end, the credibility and efficacy of the crackdown will be significantly diminished. Political insiders may not expect a real change in election norms and culture. Acting upon this expectation, they will likely continue, although not as blatantly as before, to contribute to the corrupt norms to further their self-interest. Ordinary citizens, disappointed at the Party’s failure to pursue more systemic reforms, cannot do much but to continue to endure the present system.