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.
OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.
If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.
But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.
I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading