A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.
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.
As other contributors to this blog have noted (see here, here, here, here, and here), in transnational corruption prosecutions there is a huge disparity in the enforcement of corruption laws against bribe-givers (the “supply side”) and bribe-takers (the “demand side”). For example, corporations have been penalized under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for bribes they allegedly paid to foreign officials, but the foreign officials implicated in these enforcement actions have largely remained untouched under their respective countries’ legal and political regimes. The reasons why demand-side governments have not stepped up and investigated officials who have been implicated in FCPA cases may include the lack of political will, the lack of capacity, and lack of inter-governmental cooperation. The particular reasons likely vary from country to country.
The People’s Republic of China is one of the demand-side countries that has demonstrated such a disparity. In 2016, for example, the SEC concluded 26 FCPA-related enforcement actions, 14 of which were related to corruption in China. In the same year, the DOJ published 24 FCPA-related enforcement actions as well as five declinations under its pilot program, and ten of these cases involved China. (Note that there were some overlap between the DOJ and the SEC’s enforcement actions.) Yet there has been no report about China initiating investigations into any of the officials implicated in these cases. This suggests a failure, or missed opportunity, in China’s otherwise aggressive and wide-ranging anticorruption campaign. If the government officials who take bribes can escape without any consequences, even as the bribe-paying firms are penalized, it will be very hard to effect fundamental changes to corrupt business and cultural norms, which eventually will become roadblocks to the Chinese economy’s healthy and sustainable development. Furthermore, unlike other countries, China does not seem to face significant structural obstacles that prevent it from acting on these FCPA cases. It has the political will and capacity, and it has been collaborating with the U.S. government on other matters, such as bringing back corrupt fugitives from the U.S. It seems to be just a matter of awareness or choice. This post urges the Chinese government to take a look into the government officials implicated in the FCPA cases.
The People’s Republic of China recently uncovered the biggest vote-buying scandal since its founding in 1949. On September 13, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national legislature, dismissed 45 of the 102 NPC representatives from Liaoning province for securing their seats in the NPC through vote buying. These NPC representatives had apparently bribed representatives to the Liaoning provincial Congress, which elects NPC representatives; 523 out of the 619 Liaoning provincial congress representatives were also implicated in this scandal, and have either resigned or been removed for election rigging, rendering the Liaoning provincial legislature inoperable. The central authorities stated that the “unprecedented” bribery scandal challenged the “bottom line” of China’s socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
For many observers, reports of this vote-buying scandal came as a surprise. Some commentators wondered why people would risk getting caught and punished for corruption, just to secure a seat in a legislature that has been derided as little more than a rubber stamp. The most plausible explanation is that a seat on the NPC facilitates access to the rich and powerful, and it is this consideration, rather than the mostly symbolic power of the legislature itself, that motivates candidates to buy votes in NPC elections. (See here, here and here). There is, however, a second puzzle about the recent vote-buying scandal—one that is in fact more puzzling and important, though it has not received as much attention: Why do CCP leaders care about electoral corruption in NPC elections, if the NPC merely rubber-stamps party decisions? True, the CCP under President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a top priority—but given the prevalence of corruption in so many areas of Chinese government, many of which have immediate practical consequences, why target electoral corruption in the NPC?
The question becomes even more interesting when one considers that calling attention to vote-buying in NPC elections—a form of corruption that might otherwise not attract much attention—poses certain risks to the CCP. First, even if the NPC is mostly a rubber stamp legislature, it represents the symbolic core of state power, and is central to the CCP’s “socialist democracy,” a model the Party has long used to resist the Western-style multi-party democracy. As one commentator put it has observed, the exposure of the NPC vote-buying scandal has torn a large hole in the country’s “democracy cloak.” Second, exposing widespread corrupt practices could also increase pressure for systemic reforms. So why did CCP leaders choose to crack down on corruption in the legislature so openly? Continue reading