Chinese NPAs Target the Wrong Firms

Settlement agreements, such as non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) and deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), have come to play a central role in resolving corporate criminal cases, including bribery cases. These settlement mechanisms are thought to improve overall enforcement by encouraging companies to voluntarily disclose wrongdoing and cooperate with investigators, in order to avoid the reputational and economic harm that would come with a criminal prosecution. The United States pioneered the use of NPAs and DPAs, but variants on these mechanisms have been adopted by many other countries as well (see here, here, and here).

The People’s Republic of China has also begun to explore a version of this mechanism. After some initial pilot programs at the local level, in June 2021 the Supreme People’s Procuratorate Office, together with eight other top authorities, promulgated Guiding Opinions on Establishing a Mechanism for Third-party Monitoring and Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs for Trial Implementation (or, more succinctly, the “Non-Prosecution for Compliance” mechanism). This mechanism, which can be used to resolve bribery cases as well as cases involving other types of corporate crime, resembles the NPA mechanism used in the United States: If a company accused of criminal violations admits wrongdoing, cooperates with the government’s investigation, agrees to pay certain fines, implements a compliance program that satisfies the requirements of the procuratorate office, and is overseen by a third-party monitor for up to one year, then prosecutors will agree not to prosecute the company, thus sparing the company not only the risk of criminal conviction but also the costs associated with defending against a criminal prosecution.

But there’s a big difference between the U.S. NPA system and the Chinese version: The U.S. (and other countries, like the U.K.) have used NPAs and DPAs to settle major cases against giant firms. In China so far, prosecutors (in the ten provinces and municipalities that piloted the NPA system) have only concluded NPAs with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and have done so only when the offenses involved were minor crimes (those for which the responsible persons may be sentenced to less than three years in prison, the lowest permissible punishment for most crimes). This enforcement approach gets things exactly backwards: While the availability of NPAs can be very helpful in combating corruption and other crime in large companies—by giving those companies stronger incentives to disclose and cooperate, and by inducing them to enhance their compliance systems—offering NPAs to SMEs adds little value and is costly to the government. Rather than offering NPAs only to SMEs, as seems to have been the approach of Chinese prosecutors thus far, it would be better if SMEs were deemed ineligible for NPAs.

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Leniency Revisited: China Should Also Reward Bribe Takers Who Confess

China’s anticorruption campaign has focused almost exclusively on the so-called “demand side” of bribe transactions—the public officials who request or accept bribe payments. Indeed, it is quite common for a bribe-taking government official to be prosecuted while the bribe giver receives no punishment at all (see here, here, and here). Overall, China has convicted and punished almost four times as many bribe-takers as bribe-givers, and only 1% of bribe-givers have faced criminal prosecution. 

This lopsided emphasis on the demand side of bribery is mostly caused by a odd asymmetry in China’s Criminal Law. According to Article 390, bribe givers who confess their crimes to the authorities before the case is handed over the procuratorate office for criminal prosecution are eligible for leniency, including outright exemption from punishment, but there is no equivalent provision for bribe takers. (There are some general provisions in Chinese criminal law that afford criminal defendants mitigated punishment, but these sections are applicable only when suspects voluntarily turn themselves in before any investigation has commenced, or provide sufficiently valuable service in uncovering other criminal misconduct. These provisions are not as generous as Article 390.) Due to the asymmetric structure of Article 390, coupled with the fact that bribery is often hard to uncover without the cooperation of one of the parties involved in the transaction, China’s principal anticorruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has cut deals almost exclusively with bribe givers, offering them immunity pursuant to Article 390 in exchange for their assistance in going after the corrupt officials.

This asymmetry has contributed to criticism that China is too lenient on bribe givers. Some critics have argued that China should eliminate the disparate treatment of bribe givers and bribe takers by abolishing Article 390 altogether, thus making it equally difficult for bribe givers and bribe takers to receive leniency (see, for example, here and here). While China has not gone that far, it has taken steps in this direction, for example by amending Article 390 back in 2015 to narrow the set of bribe givers who would be eligible to receive mitigated punishment under that section.

I agree that the asymmetric treatment of bribe givers and bribe takers makes little sense, but rectifying that asymmetry by restricting the availability of leniency to bribe givers who voluntarily confess is the wrong approach. On the contrary, China should expand Article 390 so that bribe takers who report to the government and offer evidence against the bribe payer would be eligible for leniency. But only the party that reports first (and fully and candidly) should be eligible for leniency—the other party to the transaction would be punished harshly. This system, which would resemble the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Leniency Program, creates a prisoner’s dilemma problem for both parties to the bribe transaction, thus helping to detect and deter bribery more efficiently.

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