Is China’s Anticorruption Enforcement Implicitly Protectionist?

When a Chinese court fined GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) US$490 million last year for bribing Chinese physicians and hospital administrators, Western firms doing business in China snapped to attention. Indeed, the GSK action is likely only the tip of the iceberg, particularly given a December 2012 official legal interpretation of the Chinese Criminal Law by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate that departed from the prior emphasis on bribe recipients and redirected attention to bribe payers. Thus far, multinational corporations – including GSK, Danoneand Volkswagen – have figured prominently in President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, leading many commentators to argue that protectionism is at play (see here and here). To put the point bluntly, the worry is that Chinese enforcers will go after foreign firms for conduct that is equally if not more common among domestic Chinese firms, and will do so largely to protect those domestic firms from foreign competition.

I have to admit, when I sat down to investigate the claims of protectionist bias, I more or less assumed the ulterior motives in Chinese enforcement. The typical refrain among my American friends who have lived and worked in China is: “Of course enforcers intentionally favor domestic companies. Everything is politically motivated.” That may be true. But what I found – or didn’t find – actually caused me to lean in the opposite direction: We don’t have enough evidence to substantiate claims of biased anticorruption enforcement in China. Continue reading

The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products. Continue reading

Corruption in Crisis Situations: Why Should We Care? What Can We Do?

A Deloitte audit published a few weeks ago revealed that the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the aid management branch of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), could not account for $1 million in expenditures in 2013. The misappropriation of $1 million, out of $60 million in total spending, may not seem like a lot, but it could be a warning sign about just how much of the $3.1 billion in Syria relief coordinated by the UN in 2013 actually reached its intended targets, and how much was lost to corruption. This concern — which applies not only to Syria, but to humanitarian aid in other conflict zones like Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan — is closely related to the issue Rick’s earlier post raised about the scandal of corruption in development aid, which should not be written off simply as “leakage,” but which can undermine rather than promote development. A parallel argument applies to corruption in humanitarian assistance to conflict zones: it undermines security. Indeed, although corruption in aid destined for insecure areas raises similar problems to corruption in development aid more generally, there are three factors that make corruption in conflict zones a particularly challenging and high-stakes concern. Continue reading