China crisis? Power, corruption and the State

Delegates at a Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

President Hu Jintao opened the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this week with a stark warning that systemic corruption could spell disaster for China’s future.

China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) is headed up by a standing committee of nine. The ruling elite is currently handing over the reins of power to a new committee – behind closed doors and without the benefit (or complication) of a people’s vote.

However, popular antagonism has grown alongside the Chinese economy in recent years because of abuses of power by the Party faithful – a select echelon of society that is seen to exercise privilege at the expense of everybody else.

Corruption Chinese-style made world headlines recently, when high-ranking leader Bo Xilai was removed from office following his wife’s implication in the murder of a British businessman and amid revelations of the family’s dubious financial dealings.

Now Hu Jintao is stating that corruption is a threat to China’s future stability (and thereby of importance to the rest of the world), but just how seriously does the regime take this threat, what can it do about it?

Here, Dr Dan Hough, Reader in Politics in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption, gives his analysis of President Hu Jintao’s speech and describes the kinds of problems Chinese politics and society face in tackling corruption.

Q America’s Presidential elections have hogged the limelight this week – but how is China’s president making headlines?

A The world has understandably been fixed on Barack Obama securing a second term as US president – the glitz and the glamour of an election to decide who should lead the free world is quite an event.  But outgoing President Hu Jintao’s speech in China could have ramifications that far outweigh even Obama's second election triumph. 

The speech will not go down as a Churchillian masterpiece.  It was not long on blistering rhetoric – Chinese leaders don't do 'barnstorming'  –  but it was noticeable, for once in Chinese politics, for the content. 

Hu issued blunt warnings about the challenges that China faces. Stability and security issues abound, and Hu pushed future leaders around president designate Xi Jinping to deal with China's biggest and most deeply embedded public policy challenge - rampant corruption. It was clear that for Hu, fighting corruption must be a priority. He said: "If we fail to handle the issue of corruption it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

Q What sort of corruption are we talking about?

A An all-pervading, systemic culture of self-serving bureaucrats and politicians who put their own interests before those of the Chinese state (and, indeed, the Chinese people).  In China, systems of Guanxi pervade all of Chinese life – networking, favouritism and favours exchanged help to oil the processes of work and daily life, and they subsequently underpin the entire political process.  Gripes and groans on the Chinese street are much more likely to be about the self-serving behaviour of local party elites than they are about, say, the troubles in Tibet, the CCP's human rights abuses or indeed many of the other issues that tend to preoccupy western observers.

Fighting corruption in Chinese political life is not about nuancing a generally healthy whole; it will need to be about fundamentally re-writing the rules of the game.

Q Can you give examples of political corruption in China?

A Examples of corruption are legion and they nearly always involve politicians enriching themselves, and often their families and friends, in (more or less) discreet ways. High-profile examples of this include the case of Zheng Xiaoyu, a former director of the State Food and Drug Administration, who was executed in September 2007 for accepting around £650,000 in bribes from the pharmaceutical industry to approve untested medicines. More than 100 people who took the medicines are known to have died.

Not all corruption occurs at the top of the pyramid. On the contrary, it is at the regional and local levels where corruption is most prevalent.

In April 2012, for example, Song Chenguang, a senior political advisor in Jiangxi Province, received the death penalty for taking bribes worth around 60 million yuan (around £1.5m), while in September 2012 Sheng Guangzu, a  regional politician,  was revealed to own an entire collection of expensive watches – the cost of which were many times more than his meager salary. An observant blogger on one of China’s flourishing microblogs tracked down pictures of Sheng and revealed all to the wider world.

The experience of paying a bureaucrat to speed up application processes or to gain a permit is widespread at the very lowest political levels, while the all-encompassing notion of Guanxi ensures that networks of friends and workmates continue to call in all sorts of favours.

In a state that does not value transparency and accountability, these sorts of processes are just tips of a very large iceberg. 

Q How can the Chinese state tackle the challenge of endemic corruption?

A Corruption in China is a systemic challenge. The system exists not in spite of corruption, but because of it. Chinese politicians would have to believe that the challenge of tackling corruption is essentially a technocratic one: beefed up laws, nuanced sets of rules and regulations, specific codes of conduct and procedures will help purge, Stalin-like, those who abuse the system.  If the culprits feel that they are likely to be caught, if the punishments are heavy enough and if the all-round quality of governance in China can be improved, then the state believes it will be in a position to take this battle forward.  However, such an approach is ultimately very likely to fail.

To use a football analogy, this is not a case of having an incompetent referee or of having linesmen who can't keep up with play and subsequently can't make the right off-side calls.  China's problem is that players understand the rules all too well and systematically abuse them; think of your perennially diving centre-forward, or of the constant badgering of a referee to make calls that suit your interests.

The system exists not in spite of corruption, but because of it. If outgoing President Hu knows this, and it is not at all clear that he does, then he will be leaving office a worried man.  

Q What would be the effect of any corruption-driven crisis in China? Could it bring down the Chinese government?

A China’s success in recent years has been built on stability. There is no popular movement calling for the removal of the CCP or indeed for the introduction of western-style democracy. But if economic growth continues to slow then issues of corruption will continue to rise in salience. If the Chinese lose faith in the economic model that the CCP has developed and acts of corruption continue – as they will – to be revealed via an ever more vibrant blogosphere, then the CCP knows it faces a real problem.

The safety valves (ie elections, media outlets, pressure groups) that traditionally allow disgruntled citizens to vent their frustrations are blocked. And when tough times hit, that simply increases the pressure.

Notes for Editors

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Last updated: Friday, 9 November 2012