Wednesday, 28 August 2013

China's anti-corruption drive faces serious questions

The Chinese Communist Party will be pleased to see the back of disgraced former high-ranking Chinese politician Bo Xilai. His allegations for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power shocked supporters of the Communist Party last year and cut short a promising career which could have sent Mr Bo all the way into the highest offices in the Politburo Standing Committee.

Convicted politician Bo Xilai at his trial - Businessweek
Even before the new General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping stepped into power last year, the Bo Xilai trial was a flagship case for China’s anti-corruption drive. The trial itself was probably more interesting for people watching in China, but this does not mean the implications shouldn’t be noted by international observers.

Bo Xilai will be lucky to avoid a death penalty for his actions, but even while he denies all allegations against him he almost certainly will be found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to a hefty prison term.

Mr Bo arrived in a courtroom after a long career of political successes, especially in emphasising the economic viability of the interior in complimenting the success of the coastal export model. But when his wife was convicted of murder his ancillary dealings in corrupt enterprises floated to the surface. The resulting investigation also revealed a power-struggle in the Communist Party rarely seen in public, which at the time, threatened to do significant harm to the Party’s public image.

The message Beijing wishes to convey by convicting Bo Xilai is its seriousness on curbing corruption and elite privilege and to avoid any further rifts in the Communist Party over the direction of the economy. But important questions remain as to how far this politically-motivated campaign can really go.

Simply put, the Communist Party is worried the insidious social costs of corruption will affect not just their reorientation to a more robust investment-driven economy, but could chip dangerously away at the pillars holding up the legitimacy of the Party itself.

This is a scary prospect for the Party. As the Bo Xilai trial already fades from the front pages and the teetering economy regains priority, Beijing must keep the problems of the economy and the Communist Party separate in the minds of ordinary Chinese. Because for a government not burdened by votes, image is everything.

In light of the recent goods quality scuffles with Fonterra in China, and the corruption crackdown on GlaxoSmithKline and other pharmaceutical companies, China’s clean up of the Party will go some way in cohering the current fracturing between economic reformers and conservatives.

Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has prioritised cleaning up corruption from the top and the bottom, calling the policy “attacking the big tiger but not letting the flies escape”.

He encourages people to report crimes by government and local officials: there’s apparently even a hotline for people to call if they spot something they don’t like. But a glaring omission in the current drive is in the judicial system, which is receiving little scrutiny. Instead the campaign is directed at local officials and any high-ranking politician offering sufficient political expediency to Mr Xi’s consolidation efforts.

Dealing with the Bo Xilai scandal in such a very public way will allow the Party to show a visible success story in bringing to justice those at the highest levels of political office. But it is far from clear the Communist Party will have the necessary tenacity to wipe out corruption.

Serious questions remain: is arresting a few top officials enough to distract the public from questioning the Party’s legitimacy? Or will deep structural reforms be needed which may threaten the foundations of the political system but save the economy?

So far, the anti-corruption drive appears to be helping Mr Xi to consolidate control over the Party by making examples of the worst offenders and political enemies. The truth about corruption is that it is a life-blood for the Chinese Government. Xi Jinping will not be able to do much about corruption no matter how much he wants to. But he certainly can make it appear he is addressing the problem, and that could just be enough for the short term.

Acting as rocket-fuel behind the anti-corruption campaign is an approaching demographic squeeze, falling export rates, and a simmering social discontent. From Beijing’s perspective, if corruption continues unabated, it could attract unwelcome criticism of the Party and threaten their legitimacy if jobs and living standards begin to drop away as well.

For Beijing, a few successes here and there will be good for its clean-up drive. But the ramifications of uncovering every skeleton in every closet are far too dangerous, so it is hard to see the campaign reaching too far.

It is all very well to remove a corrupt individual from office and round up groups of similar offenders, but if the measures don’t extend far enough then it begins to look like corruption isn’t the real issue. Saving the Communist Party from a sullied public image is the real problem, especially when its own officials are plastered nightly on court tapes buying million dollar houses on the French Riviera.

After all, if working Chinese feel the drive against corruption represents an opportunity for greater transparency, how long before they demand greater press freedom and begin to question the Communist Party’s narrative? Beijing must carefully manage the campaign to avoid sending it spiralling out of control.

1 comment:

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