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How Serious are Beijing's Efforts to Root Out Corruption?


Earlier today, Lei Zhengfu was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Lei was the Communist Party secretary in the central city of Beibei, and his case began late last year with a video of him cavorting with an 18-year old mistress. It quickly became a national sensation, an emblem of Communist Party corruption. He was later charged with bribery and corruption crimes.

His conviction suggests that the Chinese government is getting serious about corruption and extravagance at the highest levels of the Communist Party bureaucracy. Last week, Xi Jinping announced a new year-long effort to clean up the Party, and has sought to portray corruption as one of the most dangerous threats to the success of the Party and the prosperity of the nation.

But how serious is he? Is it all just for show? The New York Times report on Lei’s case is hopeful that Xi is serious, but the reporter skims past a crucial comment from the blogger who first broadcast the sensational images of Lei and his mistress: “Lei Zhengfu was not a high-level official….I don’t see much hope of the party and government really taking on corruption. Each generation of leaders vows to do that, but the results are plain to see. We don’t hold much hope.”

Over at ChinaFile, a handful of China experts agree that Beijing’s anti-corruption efforts can only go so far. “Xi Jinping’s overriding aim is the preservation of Communist party rule in China,” writes Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of history at Harvard. “[H]e cannot have a thorough-going anti-corruption drive that could target his senior colleagues and their cronies.  A few egregious cases that become public may have to be prosecuted…but it is highly likely that the main targets of the drive will only be middle- to lower-ranking officials.”

The public, in some quarters, might be disappointed. But as a recent poll tells us, Chinese citizens remain overwhelmingly supportive of the government, despite its extravagance.

[Xi Jinping photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • foobarista

    The whole reason many people get into government in China (or lots of other places) *is* corruption, and even those who go into it out a sense of civic duty or service get caught in a web of corruption that is deeply institutionalized to the point where if you *aren’t* corrupt, you’re suspect and regarded as extremely dangerous.

    The only way to reform the place is to do a bunch of stuff that would amount to a revolution: radically increase civil service salaries (which are low to the point where an official pretty much has to be corrupt to survive in expensive cities), have anti-nepotism laws, make all gifts and comps public, audit and publicize officials’ net worths, etc.

    Until then, most Chinese people dismiss the occasional idiot getting caught as political theater.

    • Jim__L

      “Survival” in expensive cities is a matter of subjectivity and perception, a lot of the time. (Also, you could find solutions like commuting, tele- and otherwise.)

      The problem is that subjectivity and perception are fed by the conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche. The upright and humble public servant resisting or succumbing to the temptation of crass materialism — such a struggle is dealt with explicitly in their traditional moral system. It’s a very familiar story in China. (Or at least to non-Chinese with a cursory education on their culture and history.)

      We’ll see what this chapter in Chinese history brings. Hopefully not another case of “And after too many officials became corrupt, they had a revolution and 40 million people died”. (By the way, that cycle makes Government Corruption a more lethal force in human history than Conquest — just short of the most lethal force, Nationalism, in fact.)

  • rodomontade

    How do you create loyalty to the Communist party? (Or any political party?) There are two ways:

    1) Shared belief; and
    2) Access to wealth and power.

    I guess I don’t doubt that there are some who would still be driven by belief, it is less and less clear what the Chinese Communist Party stands for. Rather, I think most join to share in the spoils of power and wealth.

    If they actually crack down on corruption, they strike at their own base of power. They can throw a few egregious examples to the wolves when they become embarrassing, but they can’t afford to actually stop corruption.

  • Thirdsyphon

    At a guess, I’d say the purpose of this initiative is twofold. First, a campaign to stamp out corruption might allow the government of China to deliver the steady economic improvement that its people have come to expect; and second, just in case this initiative does *not* have the desired effect, and the economic progress of China continues to slow. . . it gives Xi a handy set of scapegoats to blame it on.

  • ljgude

    It is remarkable how adept and clear seeing my fellow commenters are regarding Chinese corruption. Could that be because America has gone past the point of even prosecuting mid level officials in the NY-DC Axis?

    • rodomontade

      Of course. The real way to control corruption is to reduce the amount of stuff the government does. When government routinely makes some rich and others poor, you have to expect money to flow into the political process. Stopping it is as hopeless as keeping water from running downhill.

      I say this as the government takes over the health care industry. I obviously expect American corruption to grow worse, not better.

      • ljgude

        Yes, I expect it will get worse too.

    • Jim__L

      See: Eliot Spitzer.

  • lukelea

    MacFarquhar has it right, as usual. Corruption is integral to the way China is governed by the CPU. Where there is no rule of law, no free speech, and no independent judiciary how could it be otherwise? See Will the Boat Sink the Water for some insightful case histories:

    The Civil Servant’s Notebook, a novel actually written by a mid-level Chinese official, is also good in this regard:

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