Is China’s Anticorruption Crusade Reaching a Turning Point? Towards What?

In April 2014, a post on this blog claimed that the People’s Republic of China’s anticorruption campaign was reaching a turning point, and suggested that the campaign might be “significantly curtailed” in light of troubling signs of economic slowdown and strong pushback from other senior Party leaders. This prediction seemed reasonable at the time, yet more than three years later, the campaign shows no signs of winding down: Reports on senior government officials’ downfalls or corrupt fugitives’ repatriation from overseas still hit headlines on an almost daily basis. A recent development, however, does suggest that China’s anticorruption campaign might be reaching a different sort of turning point—turning from a near-exclusive emphasis on aggressive enforcement to institutional reforms that address the root causes of corruption.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long acknowledged the criticism that its aggressive crackdown addresses only the symptoms but not the causes of corruption. The Party asserted, however, that it needed to curtail the symptoms first to buy time to tackle the root causes. The CCP laid out its larger strategy in the form of a three-phase campaign roadmap: first, use a high-pressure crackdown to make officials “not dare to be corrupt”; next, implement institutional and legal reforms so that officials are “not able to be corrupt”; and finally, instill ethics and morality to make officials “not want to be corrupt.” Now more than four years into the campaign, the central leaders finally seem ready to move from a near-exclusive focus on the first phase towards phase two systemic reforms that are aimed at corruption prevention.

The first step in this process is to overhaul the country’s broken supervision system. Currently, multiple government and party organs are charged with supervising the exercise of power by public officials. Such organs include, at national and local levels, the people’s procuratorates (responsible for investigating and prosecuting corruption crimes), the administrative supervision authorities (charged with supervising all administrative agencies), and the intraparty commissions for disciplinary inspections (enforcing the party’s internal rules and supervising party members for disciplinary violations). For historical and political reasons, these organs lack both structural and financial independence from the government bodies they are supposed to supervise and investigate, making them unable or unwilling to investigate corruption, and sometimes causing these supervisory bodies themselves to abet and cover up corruption, rather than prevent it. This is why the Central Commission of Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the CCP’s main anticorruption watchdog, has to dispatch Special Inspection Groups to provinces, ministries, and state owned entities to tackle the entrenched power syndicates either in a particular region or an industrial sector.

In November 2016, the CCP’s General Office announced a plan to pilot a set of reforms to the state supervision system, to be implemented first in Beijing, Shanxi province, and Zhejiang province. Then in December, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress officially adopted the plan and kicked off the pilot programs in these three places. The idea is to create, within each of these jurisdictions, a new anticorruption body called the Supervision Commission, charged with supervising all public servants within the jurisdiction—including those working in administrative agencies, the courts, the procuratorates, state owned entities, and public hospitals and universities. The Supervisory Commission will integrate different existing government and Party anticorruption functions into an overarching corruption investigation agency, while the procuratorate will retain prosecution authority. To ensure effective supervision, the head of each Supervision Commission will be elected by and answerable to the People’s Congress at the same level, and thus be separate and independent from the government bodies that the Supervision Commissions are supposed to supervise. In order to exercise its investigative authority, the Supervision Commission will be given the legal authority to use various administrative and criminal investigation measures, including interview, inquiry, and interrogation, as well as asset search, freezing, and seizure.

The three pilot jurisdictions were deliberately chosen for different reasons. Beijing is the political capital. Shanxi used to be home to the most powerful corruption gangs in the energy sector. Zhejiang is an affluent coastal province full of active small and medium-sized private enterprises. As of January 2017, the three pilot cities and provinces have all established Supervision Commissions and started exploring how to best integrate and allocate supervision resources to effectively exercise their supervision power, so that the next-step nationwide reform could draw lessons and adopt best practices from them. In the meantime, the central authorities will be working on putting into place the necessary legal framework. The central authorities aim to draft a new piece of legislation, the State Supervision Law, amend the relevant administrative and criminal laws and regulations, and establish the State Supervision Commission by the next annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress in March 2018.

The CCP has attached great importance to this reform. It sees putting into place an effective supervision system as the first step leading to further political system reforms that eventually would “put power into a cage of regulations.” Commentators have pointed out that the new anticorruption agency might look similar to Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which is often cited as a successful model in eradicating corruption. Of course, some people have also voiced concerns about both the independence and the potentially enormous power of the new agency:

  • The concerns about the agency’s independence are on two levels. First, some wonder whether the each Supervision Commission will be truly independent of bodies it is supposed to supervise. The current judicial reforms on courts and procuratorates, which were also intended to separate them the influence of local administrative powers, have not been entirely successful. Second, some have criticized the reform because the independence of the Supervision Commission extends only to its relationship with other government bodies, not to its relationship with the CCP. Indeed, the CCP has firmly declared that the new anticorruption body, like all other governmental and judicial bodies, must be subjected to the Party’s leadership.
  • As for concerns about the new agency’s enormous power, the Party has made clear that the new agency will not go unchecked. Like the ICAC, each of the new Supervision Commissions will also establish an internal supervision unit to make sure its own staff will not abuse their investigative power. In fact, the CCDI has already established internal supervision units and investigated and sent for prosecution quite a few corrupt officials from its own enforcement team.

It remains to be seen how the pilot programs are actually carried out and what the national legislation and nationwide reform will look like. Enormous legal, practical, organizational, and political challenges in implementing the reform—including integrating existing resources from different government bodies, defining the new Commission’s supervision and investigation authorities, and ensuring the Commission’s independence at least from other government bodies—will need to be addressed. Yet this reform appears to be a meaningful step towards institutionalizing enforcement efforts and establishing checks and balances among different government bodies into a formal and legal framework. Ultimately, the reform’s efficacy will depend on the Party’s continuing political will and the corresponding legal and institutional design and adjustment.

2 thoughts on “Is China’s Anticorruption Crusade Reaching a Turning Point? Towards What?

  1. Pingback: Is China’s Anticorruption Crusade Reaching a Turning Point? Towards What? | Matthews' Blog

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