In a post for the Brookings Institution, David Dollar laments China’s problematically low social mobility, and offers three factors preventing China from becoming a true land of opportunity: (1) the hukou residential registration system (which restricts labor mobility); (2) locally-funded education (which disadvantages poorer rural communities); and (3) growing corruption–because, as Dollar argues, it is “easier for elite families to pass on status and income to their children when there aren’t clear rules and fair competition.” . However, although the view that corruption inhibits social mobility is widespread, and Dollar’s point is partly correct, in reality the picture is more complex. Continue reading
In my last post I noted that political decentralization, and the inter-jurisdictional competition it fostered, could potentially suppress local corruption and promote economic growth. My enthusiasm was fanned by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) aggressive anticorruption campaign. Since President Xi Jinping took power, there has been a wave of anticorruption purges against powerful military and government officials. The very public purge of Zhou Yongkang, a retired official described as “the most powerful man in China,” seems to be an indication that Xi is fulfilling his promise of zero tolerance against “tigers” and “flies.”
However, my optimism has been tempered by recent news that two more anticorruption activists have gone on trial in China. The fact that the two activists from New Citizens Movement—Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei—campaigned for officials to disclose their assets, a cause that echoed CCP’s official aspiration (see here and here) only made the arrests more perplexing.
This seems like a glaring contradiction. Why does the Chinese leadership continue to trumpet on about anticorruption and simultaneously arrest anticorruption activists?
Many commentators have credited China’s political decentralization, and the inter-jurisdictional competition it fosters, with suppressing local corruption and promoting economic growth. Other commentators have been similarly enthusiastic about the prospects for Chinese “federalism” to improve both economic and government performance, and urge China to go even further in embracing a federalist model. For instance, an op-ed in the New York Times a few months back suggests that “[I]f China’s leaders want to ensure their country’s peace and prosperity over the long run, they would do well to chart a course toward a federal future.”
The main argument for why political decentralization, and the associated inter-jurisdictional competition, can improve governance and growth is straightforward: Local officials compete for mobile capital and labor, and this competition disciplines government officials because bad behavior (such as corruption) can cause voters and firms to move to another jurisdiction. The greater the mobility of firms and citizens, the stronger the disciplining effect. And there’s some rigorous recent academic research substantiating the hypothesis that political competition can improve governance, including an excellent recent paper that examines recent data from Vietnam and finds that economic growth, coupled with political decentralization and competition, has indeed reduced local government corruption.
So does this mean that China’s best hope for improving its governance performance is to decentralize even further, granting provinces and municipalities greater autonomy in setting policy within their jurisdictions?
The short answer is likely to be no.
Xi Jinping is 18 month into his presidency and almost as long into his anticorruption crusade in China. As the Wall Street Journal noted as early as May 2013, anticorruption purges are hardly new in China, but President Xi seems to be pursuing his anticorruption drive with unprecedented vigour and commitment. Zhou Yongkang, the newest and arguably most prominent casualty of the purge, is evidence that this time is different. Shannon Tiezzi recently made the same underlying point in a piece in the Diplomat. Ms. Tiezzi takes issue with the oft-repeated claim that President Xi is only using anticorruption to weaken political rivals and promote his allies; she points out that while President Xi is indeed using the purge to his advantage, political infighting couldn’t be his sole motivation, since if it were “he would likely be winding down the campaign now.”
I don’t disagree with Ms. Tiezzi’s point. President Xi’s anticorruption drive–the centerpiece of his tenure so far–has undoubtedly gone further than others before him. More than 182,000 party members, including 17 high-ranking officials, have been punished for corruption since the beginning of his presidency. Yet despite this progress, recent signals suggest that his campaign might be significantly curtailed in the near future.