A version of this his article was first published by THE GLOBALIST on July 30, 2014.
President Xi Jinping of China is following the textbook to the letter in his determined efforts to fight corruption. His guru could well be Professor Robert Klitgaard, a distinguished American academic, now at Claremont Graduate University in California.
The essence of some of Klitgaard’s thinking, which seems to be just what Xi is practicing, was highlighted, for example, when he wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine in January 2011 about South Sudan. He said, “Put the fight against corruption at the center of creating a new government. Create a core of qualified well-paid government leaders. Demonstrate that impunity is over by frying some big fish.”
Few fish are bigger in China (although Xi and the Chinese press prefer to say “tiger”) than Zhou Yongkang, 71. The Chinese official media has reported that Zhou has been arrested and is being investigated by the government’s anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Zhou is the first former member of the top level Politburo to be arrested in China in many decades. For five years until he retired in 2012 he was the nation’s chief of security, directing the police and the intelligence services. He had enormous power over large parts of industry, notably in the energy sector as well. A number of his subordinates have been arrested in recent months.
True to the Klitgaard script, Xi has placed loyal and skilled officials at the Central Commission, he has demonstrated that no individual, however powerful and senior in the Chinese Communist Party, is above the law. By going after a number of top level officials and stripping them of their influence, he is, in effect, creating a new government.
Rampant Chinese Corruption
The attack on corruption in China is long overdue. Corruption is rampant. Many government and Communist Party officials enjoy great wealth and have long placed wives and sons and daughters and other relations in key business positions that have assured them of formidable fortunes.
The arrest of Zhou will rattle the nerves of officials and Party members across China. They will be asking: who will be next? They will be replacing Rolex watches with cheap time-pieces and ensuring that they are not seen shopping at the many top luxury Western stores that abound in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.
But ordinary Chinese citizens, who are likely to welcome the anti-corruption drive, may still be skeptical. They may wonder if this is just a purge by Xi of actual and potential political opponents, rather than a sincere long-term effort to eradicate corruption.
To convince people in China and abroad that he is determined, Xi needs to embark not only on high-profile arrests, but also on fundamental public policy changes, starting with the legal system.
The current Chinese system enables Xi to be the public prosecutor, the jury and the judge at the same time. Moreover, all of these roles can be played in secrecy. Everyone who is accused of a crime in China knows that he will almost certainly be found guilty. He has scant opportunity to protest his innocence. He may not be able to select his own defense. His trial is likely to be in secret. There is no due process.
So far, Xi has shown no inclination to change the legal system. Nor has he indicated a willingness to start making government activities transparent and so make government and Party officials publicly accountable. The details of most public procurement contracts are not published, yet decisions by officials on who wins contracts and on what terms are prone to bribery when shrouded in secrecy. Then, there is opacity when it comes to the taking of gifts by government officials and Party members. Not only do business people regularly provide gifts to officials, but gift giving is often the way lower level officials ingratiate themselves with superiors and climb the power ladder.
The Chinese people have no idea about the compensation levels of senior officials and Party members and no way to determine if the life styles of these officials is commensurate with their official incomes. Transparency across almost all aspects of government practices is essential if Xi is serious about ending impunity. If he needs to know how to do this, then Professor Klitgaard has many pragmatic ideas to share.