China’s Anticorruption System 2.0: A Harbinger of Rule of Law?

In his three-and-a-half-hour speech at China’s 19th Party Congress last month, President Xi Jinping demonstrated his determination to maintain his vigorous anticorruption campaign. But he also proposed a number of significant changes, including (1) the creation of a new National Supervision Commission (NSC), along with supervision commissions (SCs) at the provincial, municipal, and county levels, to spearhead China’s anticorruption efforts, (2) the adoption of new national legislation, the Supervision Law, that includes improved procedural protections for the accused, and (3) the integration of China’s obligations under international anticorruption treaties into domestic law.

For the most part, Western commentators were unimpressed (for example, see Tom’s previous post). The establishment of the NSC was characterized as “essentially another power expansion of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI),” while the reforms related to protections for the accused were seen as little more than the “replace[ment of] one abusive detention system with another.” I beg to differ. This reform plan, while incomplete and inadequate in some respects, is a big step forward from where China stands now. While it would be a mistake to be overly optimistic before any positive change actually takes place, it would also be a mistake to dismiss these new reforms out of hand as insignificant or cosmetic. Any movement toward greater judicialization and respect for the rule of law in China is likely to be incremental and face pushback. Understood in that context, the three announced reforms noted above seem quite significant, and mark a notable break with China’s previous approach to anticorruption enforcement.

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Who’s at the Wheel of China’s Anticorruption Drive?

Since China’s anticorruption drive kicked off five years ago, it has had a tremendous impact on the country’s politics. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), until recently led by President Xi Jinping’s close ally Wang Qishan, has targeted officials both high and low—so-called tigers and flies. According to the CCDI’s own data, more than 70,000 officials at or above the level of county head have been investigated, and close to two million officials have been punished in some way. The drive has also ensnared a few senior figures who, during their days of freedom, where among the most powerful men in China, including Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. The CCDI’s power does not stop even at China’s borders: According to official statistics, by the end of August 2017, over three thousand fugitives had been repatriated from more than 90 countries.

But the drive is now shifting gears. Last October, in his speech opening the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress, President Xi laid out plans to “deepen reform of the national supervisory system” and establish a new body, the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), to spearhead anticorruption efforts. The NSC is expected to consolidate and institutionalize the hitherto campaign-style anticorruption efforts of the CCDI. (While the exact structure of the NSC is still unknown, it will be based on lessons learned from pilot projects – the so-called Provincial Supervisory Commissions (PSCs) established in the city of Beijing, as well as Shanxi and Zhejiang provinces.) The new anticorruption system outlined by President Xi for the national level is likely to have four major effects: Continue reading

When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.

But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer. Continue reading

Why Does the Chinese Communist Party Tear a Hole in its Own Democracy Cloak?

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

The Reform of the One-Child Policy Will Help Reduce Corruption in China

Imagine being pregnant with a second child in a country with a one-child-per-family limit. The penalties for violating the policy are severe-forced abortions, sterilizations, and crippling fines. This was, of course, the grim reality for many Chinese citizens before October 30, 2015. That day, China’s Central Communist Party issued a short announcement that all Chinese couples will be allowed to have two children, ending 35 years of the notorious one- child policy.

The official reason for ending this policy lies in its troubling effects on China’s demographics: After decades of successfully curbing population growth, the one-child policy has caused China to become a country with a rapidly aging population (that is enjoying more longevity) and a corresponding shrinking young work force, which together put enormous pressure on the country’s labor industry and public service resources. Commentators have overlooked the fact that the new two-child policy may also have important implications for President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption crackdown (covered from different perspectives here, here, and here ). The one-child policy (perhaps inadvertently) fostered at least two forms of corruption, and the end of that policy will therefore make a non-negligible contribution to reducing corruption in China.

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What Does China’s Anticorruption Campaign Mean for Africa?

In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at a China-Africa summit in Johannesburg last December, a flurry of news articles in African outlets—especially in Zimbabwe—optimistically highlighted the role China could play in helping African countries curb corruption. As previously discussed on the blog, in the first three years of his tenure, President Xi has made a crusade against corruption an important rhetorical part of his presidency, and backed up those words with actions (though some have questioned his techniques). It’s equally well-established that China has become very involved with Africa.  China increasingly depends on Africa’s mineral resources to feed China’s growing industries, and Chinese businesses see Africa as a potentially lucrative export market. Many African countries seeks partners, like China, that are willing to invest in infrastructure and business development. Though there has been recent pushback to China’s actions, and even a decline in Chinese investment in Africa, President Xi’s $60 billion pledge at the summit indicates China will continue to be an important player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Many commentators hope that the combination of these two factors—China’s anticorruption campaign and its substantial economic engagement with Africa—will give a boost to anticorruption efforts in Africa. Alas, those hopes are overstated.

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Forget FIFA: China Battles Corruption by Banning Golf

President Xi Jinping has made fighting many different kinds of corruption a priority of his administration, and so far 180,000 party officials have been caught and punished in the government’s wide-ranging anticorruption campaign. As part of this campaign, the Chinese government recently banned golf memberships for Communist Party members — all 88 million of them. The complete ban is part of an anticorruption strategy that involves cracking down on many of the lavish banquets and other types of conspicuous consumption by public officials that have caused widespread public anger in recent years, anger both at corruption, and at the country’s deepening economic inequality. The golf ban comes after months of tightening restrictions on how officials can play golf, following a scandal involving a suspicion that a top member of the commerce ministry allowed a company to improperly pay his golf expenses, as well as reports that some officials were playing golf during working hours.

The golf ban is not an isolated anomaly: A significant part of the Chinese campaign has involved tightening restrictions on various forms of conspicuous consumption by public officials. For example, officials are now prohibited from staying in five star hotels with public money (a move that led 56 hotels to ask to be downgraded to four stars so that they can continue to accept government clients), while lavish banquets, once a mainstay, have been limited to “four courses and one soup.” Golf is the latest luxury activity to fall under government regulation. But while these crackdowns could help the government look like they are taking corruption even more seriously, banning golf and other types of conspicuous consumption may actually serve to worsen the problem.

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