The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. And many countries plagued by corruption did just that over the course of 2017, with Venezuela, China, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and several other nations launching (or in some cases continuing) high-profile anticorruption campaigns. Yet outside observers often have difficulty distinguishing sincere, well-intentioned anticorruption campaigns are well-intentioned from politically-motivated purges. Moreover, this dichotomy may be too simple, as many anticorruption campaigns may have mixed or complex motives. (Very often, for example, individuals targeted by an anticorruption campaign may have both engaged in misconduct and also be political opponents of the ruling faction.) Yet even though it is difficult for outsiders to assess the motives of foreign countries’ anticorruption campaigns—especially in real time—such an inquiry is often necessary, especially when outsiders must decide how aggressively to assist with things like asset freezes, extradition of fugitives, and other sorts of aid and support for anticorruption efforts.
While there is no definite set of criteria that can be used to determine the sincerity of an anticorruption campaign, it is nonetheless possible to develop a set of questions than can serve as reference points and channel our attention to certain key issues, or “red flags,” that might help us distinguish sincere and genuine anticorruption efforts from those that are mainly political vendettas. Such questions might include the following:
- Is the campaign personally directed by the executive? If so, are there checks and balances? Many newly-launched anticorruption campaigns are personal initiatives of new executives who create them – see, for instance, campaigns in China and Saudi Arabia. In both cases, anticorruption work is invested with the personal cache of a new, centralizing leader and has been used as a tool to clean house of political opponents. While corruption has long been a major problem in both countries, the lack of an institutional framework for addressing it means that reformist leaders are given almost carte blanche. Of course, some executive-directed campaigns with no checks and balances have been among the most successful in eradicating corruption (Singapore comes to mind). The difficulty for observers in relying on this phenomenon, however, is that it’s impossible to tell who is a Lee Kwan Yew and who is a Nicolas Maduro. Instead, observers should look to institutions. Checks on the executive’s power are important for ensuring that anticorruption work doesn’t devolve into a settling of political scores. Systemic checks and balances, while effective in policing corruption, also help police excesses of authoritarian power, and observers should look to the strength of new or existing institutions independent of the executive in deciding whether there is enough of a check on the executive’s power.
- Does the campaign target only high-level offenders? Or are “small fish” targeted as well? For an anticorruption regime to be effective, it must be applied without preference as to an individual’s level of influence. This means that observers should look to whether individuals with significant political, economic, or social weight are being investigated, detained, and prosecuted. Arguably, a campaign which does not go after such people does not have sufficient political backing. But the inquiry works the other way too: A campaign that exclusively targets kingpins may be more likely to represent a glorified purge against political enemies. While budget constraints may prevent perfectly equal application of the law, a sincere anticorruption campaign is more likely to set rules which ensnare corrupt individuals from multiple sectors of society, including—to use the Chinese phrase—both tigers and flies. This is not to say that individuals will be tried and convicted for the same offenses; after all, different people will have different opportunities to steal. But punishments should be meted out on some sort of rational basis across social strata.
- Does the campaign include prophylactic measures to prevent corruption, or does it only feature prosecutions? Corruption is innovative: within a given set of institutional structures, corrupt actors will find ways to work around the system. Moreover, when anticorruption controls on the books are underenforced, corrupt actors don’t even need to pretend to be engaged in lawful activity. Effective anticorruption work seeks not only to punish those responsible for crimes, but also to plug the gaps and ensure that past abuses are not imitated. Such initiatives will look very different depending on the context. They might include more stringent transparency initiatives, a drive to enforce old rules, an educational push to train people to recognize and report corruption, and even curbs on the types of food allowable at state banquets. An anticorruption campaign which includes a variety of preventative measures is more likely to be a good-faith effort to deal with the problem than is a campaign focused entirely on prosecutions. Particularly important here may be the question whether the anticorruption campaign includes measures to increase transparency. While not a sine qua non of effective anticorruption work, there is a well-documented connection between increased transparency and decreased corruption.
Every anticorruption drive is different, and these questions are only a starting point. But as political purges are increasingly clothed in the garb of anticorruption, it is important for outsiders to develop a core of common questions with which to interrogate the intentions of a given campaign, especially in its early stages. Few countries will announce beforehand their intent to pursue political opponents – instead, observers must assess the institutional design of a campaign as a sign of its sincerity.