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