The South African Turnover: Anticorruption or Political Consolidation?

Last February, South African President Jacob Zuma—who has been dogged for years by credible allegations of corruption and other serious malfeasance in office—finally resigned under pressure.  In April, only a couple of months later, Zuma went on trial; he faces 16 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering, and racketeering related to arms deals that took place in the 1990s (before his election as president). Zuma fought these charges for years, but now it seems as if his political cover has run out.

Yet the story behind Zuma’s corruption trial may go deeper than Zuma’s past bad behavior finally catching up with him. It’s important also to note the political context. Zuma’s resignation came at the urging of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), after Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa secured the leadership of the ANC in December 2017, igniting a power struggle that led to a planned vote of no confidence, brokered by Ramaphosa. Zuma resigned in order to avoid a vote he was likely to lose, and Deputy President Ramaphosa immediately took over. In his first few months in office, Ramaphosa has been shaking up the political establishment, but is himself also the subject of multiple corruption allegations. This leads one to question: Should the retrial of Zuma be understood principally as part of Ramaphosa strategy for political consolidation? More generally, has South Africa’s recent political shakeup set the country on a course for a better, less corrupt future?

Many have expressed precisely this hope, but I’m more pessimistic. True, President Ramaphosa has acknowledged South Africa’s serious corruption problem and pledged to address it, and that is in some ways welcome news. But Ramaphosa is not an immaculate outsider with the capacity to reform from a position of moral authority. He is a deep insider, enmeshed in the corrupt system he has pledged to reform. He has profited heavily from the relationship between the ANC and the wealthy (mostly white) elites, and his rise to power came not from a landslide toward a new party, but from a successful destabilization of the ANC from within. Moreover, while Ramaphosa’s government is cracking down on corruption, its investigations seem carefully and narrowly targeted, focusing mainly on those who might be a political threat or rival. Therefore, I worry that Ramaphosa may prove to be equally corrupt, and the latest string of crackdowns may be nothing more than a way of securing his position as leader of South Africa for the many years to come.

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Dear American Congress, Please Don’t Destroy Guatemala’s Best Hope for Combatting Corruption

Unproven, implausible allegations about Russian meddling in Guatemala’s judicial system threaten one of the most innovative and successful efforts to curb grand corruption now underway.  The Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a hybrid UN-Guatemalan investigative agency known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has made enormous progress taming grand corruption, drug trafficking, the wholesale murder of indigenous people, and other crimes committed by an insular elite who, until the advent of CICIG, operated without fear of prosecution.  CICIG’s success rests on its independence from Guatemala’s corrupt elite, both in the investigators it hires, often from other Spanish-speaking countries with no ties to anyone in Guatemala, and its funding, a significant portion of which is provided by the U.S. Congress.  Thanks to these conditions, it has presented Guatemalan prosecutors with air-tight cases against former presidents, vice-presidents, ministers, and senior military and civil servants.

CICIG’s American funding is now in doubt thanks to a story those most in danger from CICIG sold Wall Street Journal opinion writer Mary O’ Grady.  O’Grady wrote in March that CICIG took money from Russian interests to push the prosecution of Russian dissidents who emigrated to Guatemala.  O’Grady’s story caught the attention of several in Congress who now question whether the U.S. should continue supporting CICIG.  Thankfully, the story has not gone unanswered.  A wave of stories knocking it down and noting its origin among the very elite in CICIG’s cross-hairs has appeared in, among other outlets, the Economist (here), the Washington Post (here), and the Guatemalan media (here and here [Spanish].  The American Bar Association (here) sharply questioned the premises underpinning O’Grady’s claims.

The latest support for CICIG comes from a former Guatemalan vice president and several former foreign ministers and ambassadors in a letter to the U.S. Congress.   The letter itself is a welcome sign that a new elite is rising that is not afraid to counter the old corrupt elite.  In it they write forcefully of CICIG’s critical importance to the well-being of Guatemala’s citizens:

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Public Beneficial Ownership Registries: A Response To Recent Criticisms

Anticorruption activists and other advocates for greater corporate and financial transparency scored a big win earlier this month when the UK announced that it would require the 14 British Overseas Territories (such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Cayman Islands) to create public beneficial ownership registers for all corporations and other legal entities registered in those jurisdictions. Many in the pro-transparency community believe that such registers are critical for fighting corruption and money laundering, as they make it harder to use anonymous companies to engage in unlawful transactions and hide the proceeds of crime by requiring information on the actual human beings (the ultimate “beneficial owners”) who own or control these artificial legal entities. At the very least, beneficial ownership information should be verified and kept on file so that it will be available to law enforcement in the event of an investigation, but many in the pro-transparency community believe that public beneficial ownership registers would be even more effective, as they would provide open data that civil society groups, the media, and others could scrutinize and analyze in order to unearth shady transactions and make it harder for kleptocrats and others to hide their loot. The British Overseas Territories are not the only or even the worse offenders when it comes to corporate secrecy—the United States is still struggling to enact laws that would provide for a non-public register, which the BVI and some other Overseas Territories already have—but there’s no doubt that these jurisdictions are often a preferred destination for dirty money.

So when the UK announced that it would require the Overseas Territories to adopt public beneficial ownership registers, many cheered. But not everybody. A couple weeks back, over at the FCPA Blog, Martin Kenney, a lawyer based in the BVI, published an intemperate denunciation of the new policy, lambasting the so-called “transparency brigade” for having a “mob mentality,” for being “naïve,” “hypocritical,” and neo-imperialist (and possibly racist), and of taking advantage of the devastation that many of the Caribbean Islands suffered in Hurricanes Irma and Maria to push their agenda at a time when “they perceive their prey to be weakened.” Indeed, the ad hominem invective in the post is so thick that it’s sometimes hard to discern the serious, substantive objections underneath all the vitriol. Which is a pity, because Kenney actually does advance at least one or two arguments that, while in my view likely incorrect, are worth taking seriously.

Last week, Rick offered a thoughtful, measured response to Mr. Kenney’s piece that got at some, but perhaps not all, of the core issues. I want to pick up where Rick left off, to lay out what I think are the most sensible concerns about the new UK policy (and about public beneficial ownership registers more generally). And, following Rick’s lead, I’ll try to turn the rhetorical temperature down a few notches, as there’s little to be gained in a (virtual) shouting match on a complicated issue like this. Continue reading

It’s Time for China to Show Its Foreign Bribery Law is Not a Paper Tiger

In May 2011, China criminalized the bribery of foreign public officials. More specifically, the 8th Amendment to China’s Criminal Law, among other things, added Article 164(2), which prohibits both natural persons and units (i.e. companies and other organizations) under Chinese criminal jurisdiction from giving “property to any foreign public official or official of an international public organization for the purpose of seeking illegitimate commercial benefit.” This legislative action, intended in part to fulfill China’s obligations as a State Party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, was considered an accomplishment given the under-criminalization of foreign bribery in Asia Pacific at the time. Many commentators devoted substantial attention to questions about the law’s meaning, including the definition of almost every term in the provision (“property,” “foreign public official,” “international public organization,” “illegitimate commercial benefit,” etc.—for a sampling, see here, here, here, here, here, or just search for “China Criminal Law 164” using any search engine).

However, almost seven years have passed, and nothing substantial has happened, except for some minor movements related to the law as observed by the media and commentators in some official and unofficial statements (see, for example, here, here, and here). Not a single enforcement action has been brought (or at least publicized) under Article 164(2). Even after President Xi Jinping launched in 2013 the most extensive anti-graft campaign China has ever seen, there have been no foreign anti-bribery enforcement actions.

There are several possible explanations for China’s non-enforcement of 164(2). One possibility, discussed previously on this blog, is that China’s traditional “non-interference” foreign policy might make China reluctant to go after transnational bribery; more generally, China might not be interested in devoting resources to fighting forms of corruption that don’t have domestic effects. Some have also suggested that China has little incentive to enforce its foreign anti-bribery law because bribery of foreign officials gives Chinese firms a competitive advantage in certain jurisdictions. It’s also possible that simple inertia is part of the story: It’s worth keeping in mind that although the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was enacted in 1977, almost 80% of the FCPA enforcement actions (amounting to 95% of the total FCPA sanctions) occurred after 2007. Similarly, the UK Bribery Act came into force in 2011, but the first foreign bribery case under that act wasn’t resolved until 2014. South Korea enacted its foreign bribery law in 1999 but didn’t prosecute its first case until 2003, while Japan took even longer, enacting a foreign bribery law in 1998 but not bringing its first case until nine years later, in 2007. In fact, Transparency International observed in 2015 that about half of the then-42 countries taking part in the OECD Convention on Combating Foreign Bribery (to which China is not a party) have not yet prosecuted a single foreign bribery case since the Convention came into force in 1999. So China’s inertia is hardly unique.

Yet regardless of the reasons why China has not enforced its foreign bribery law, and regardless of whether this inaction renders China unusual or typical, it is now high time for China to start enforcing this law aggressively. Doing so is in China’s long-term strategic interests, for three reasons: Continue reading

The Chinese Corruption Crackdown and Political Maneuvering

China’s broad anticorruption drive, spearheaded by President Xi Jinping, has been making splashy headlines over the last five years. The scale of this effort has been huge, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials punished in the first half of 2017 alone, and recent reports of nearly a million officials under supervision as of December 2017.  Yet while China’s anticorruption efforts have been met with some qualified praise from the beginning, many critics have been troubled by signs that the anticorruption crackdown is being used for political purposes. These purposes include consolidating President Xi’s power, particularly in light of rule changes that allow him to serve indefinitely, and also protecting the CCP’s reputation (see, for example, here and here). And because so many top Chinese officials have been involved in some kind of illicit activity (perhaps because in the current system bribery and patronage is essential to advancement), selective enforcement of anticorruption and related laws could allow President Xi to take out anyone sufficiently disloyal or threatening.

A recent example of the political considerations of the anticorruption campaign is found in the story of Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire currently residing in the US. Continue reading

Public Disclosure of Beneficial Ownership: Do the Naysayers Have a Point?

Readers are no doubt celebrating the British House of Commons approval May 1 of legislation making it harder for corrupt officials to hide money offshore.  The new law requires that, starting 2021, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands along with other U.K. overseas territories must publicly disclose the actual person or persons – the “beneficial owners” – of companies organized under their laws.  Some half of the companies identified in the Panama Papers were organized in the British Virgin Islands, and estimates are that between 2007 and 2016 over $90 billion surreptitiously left Russia via British overseas territories.  Somewhere among the billions that mobsters, drug traffickers, and tax evaders are hiding in British overseas territory corporations are likely billions in monies stolen through corruption.  Forcing the corporations to reveal who is behind them will make recovering the monies that much easier.

No reform, no matter how powerful the arguments in support, is without its doubters.  Given the hefty fees banks, lawyers, accountants, and secrecy accomplices of all kinds earn helping hide money, it is no wonder the beneficial ownership legislation has attracted its share of naysayers.  The most thoughtful, and certainly the one who can turn the cleverest phrase, is BVI solicitor Martin Kenney. On Monday on the FCPA blog, he castigated “the NGO ‘transparency’ brigade.” It had “once again raised its guns and placed its cross-hairs over its preferred target: the offshore service providers in the British Overseas Territories.” And thanks to the Commons vote, the brigade can now mount its most wanted “trophy,” the BVI, on its wall.

Laying aside his colorful rhetoric, Kenney has a point.  Actually two.    Continue reading

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 2: Measurement or Moralism?

In my last post, I conjectured that a great deal of what would seem like a dry methodological question—How should we define and measure corruption?—is actually shot through with political-ideological considerations. The reason, I further conjectured, is that “corruption” is both (1) a descriptive sociological term, used to categorize a set of related behaviors, and (2) an evaluative moral term, used to characterize certain behaviors (or people or governments or institutions or countries) as “bad” or “blameworthy.” The fact that the same term has these different functions, coupled with the fact that the word “corruption” is particularly (though not uniquely) ambiguous and open-ended, means that attempts to come up with definitions and measurements that are appropriate for some purposes may seem to others wrongheaded, even offensive.

My illustration of this difficulty in the my last post concerned debates over whether “corruption” should be defined (say, by advocacy organizations or researchers) principally as “the abuse of public power for private gain,” or instead should be defined to include purely private sector corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). My admittedly speculative conjecture was that many (not all) who argue for the latter position do so not so much because of (plausible) arguments for analytical equivalence, but rather due to an implicit—and in my view incorrect—belief that focusing on public sector corruption suggests a neoliberal/libertarian skepticism of activist government.

Here I want to suggest a similar sort of ideological subtext in debates over whether the definition of corruption (and the sorts of corruption that the leading indicators should seek to capture) ought to be limited to what we might think of as the “direct” or “first-order” dishonest acts by the responsible officials (such as taking bribes or embezzling funds), or whether measures of corruption should also incorporate the activities that facilitate corruption (such as providing safe havens for stolen assets), as well as the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to influence public policy through legal means (such as lobbying and campaign donations). This has come up more than a couple of times in the last few months at various conferences and roundtable discussions I’ve attended. The context is typically a criticism—often impassioned—of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the associated graphics (such as the color-coded country map) that are used to illustrate the index results. The criticism usually runs as follows (and here I’m paraphrasing, but I think fairly and accurately): Continue reading