In a sign that China’s leadership is not oblivious to the rampant corruption that plagues the country, President Hu Jintao advised that the country “remain vigilant against corruption, [and] be fully aware that fighting corruption will be a protracted, complicated and arduous battle,” in a speech marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Global Integrity Report: 2009 for China flagged corruption as a major challenge in China, and the problem has only worsened in the past two years. The explosion in wealth-creation over the past thirty years of economic growth, coupled with tremendous power concentrated in the single-party-state model, has allowed for the proliferation of corruption among officials eager to enrich themselves while in office.
President Hu’s remarks, while high-profile, are not the first made by the government. In 2009 Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spoke out against corruption, promising to take action. While some important officials were tried for corruption and even executed, this was seen as more of a scapegoat tactic than a dedicated anti-corruption campaign.
While the government has and likely will continue to take steps to target the most egregious offenders, a larger problem is the lack of transparency and accountability inherent in the system. Despite President Hu’s promises to “improve the institutions for punishing and preventing corruption,” China’s anti-corruption agencies are under direct control of the Party (in practice, they are centered around the Party’s Central Disciplinary Committee) and citizens’ access is limited, earning it a score of 53 / 100 on Global Integrity’s Integrity Indicators scorecard. Freedom of the press is also severely curtailed and although the state media does report on corruption, the coverage is selective.
That stories about local-level corruption have been recently published in the state media is arguably a sign that the government recognizes the growing public frustration with corruption. Some cases of larger-scale corruption have been published as well, such as the recent revelation of an internal central bank report that alleges that employees of state-owned corporations have embezzled more than $120 billion over the past twenty years. Furthermore, the number of public protests and demonstrations, although small and generally controlled, has increased. While corruption has not been an overt theme, it is an underlying complaint in protests focused on working conditions and land rights.
In President’s Hu’s own words, unchecked, “corruption will cost the Party the support and trust of the people.” It remains an open question, however, whether truly effective action against the culture of corruption can occur in a single-party state. The Chinese government will likely undertake a delicate balancing act by selectively increasing the level of accountability in state institutions while seeking to maintain the uniform control that the Communist Party has managed for the past sixty-two years. Whether this is achievable in practice may dictate just how successfully the Party can continue running the country in the future.
-- Mitul Bhat