A Chinese friend called from the United States, talking with me about the economic and social situation in China. More than an hour into our discussion, he had no mention of the previous hot topic – the anti-graft campaign. I asked why. “I’m not interested any more, seeing there have hardly been ‘tigers’ lately,” he replied.
His represented a typical sentiment both abroad and home. Some people even believe the anti-corruption campaign is already over the hill. But that is not true. The institutional changes targeted at addressing the root causes of corruption are just beginning.
The very first step in that direction is the pilot reforms in supervisory mechanisms to be carried out in Beijing, as well as Shanxi and Zhejiang provinces, which have just been approved by the National People’s Congress.
Such reforms are essential to the ultimate success of the anti-corruption campaign, because they represent an attempt to institutionalize. Each of the three pilot projects has peculiar characteristics. Shanxi is an example of all-round corruption of high- and intermediate-level officials. The Communist Party of China defined corruption in the province as “landslide”, and set the goal of the anti-corruption campaign there as “restoring political ecology”. Reportedly 1,000 or so high- and middle-level public officials have been brought down in the campaign. It would be impossible to restore normal functioning of government offices and prevent a new round of large-scale corruption in the province, whose area and population are respectively equivalent to that of a major country in Europe, without building a complete set of supervisory mechanisms.
If problems in Shanxi were mainly economic, those in Beijing often featured a political dimension. One of the charges against the so-called “strongwoman” municipal official, who was just disgraced for corruption, was “making unwarranted remarks on the CPC central leadership”. Such a charge may be difficult to understand for outsiders. But it is an intolerable sin here in China under CPC rules. By choosing Beijing, architects of the reforms displayed very strong political awareness, along with the resolve to safeguard the CPC’s ruling status.
By incorporating Zhejiang province, there evidently was the intention to find a way for corruption prevention in the country’s most developed eastern areas. Official corruption in China is closely related to the rise of new industries and new business models. Making Zhejiang an experimental plot makes sense.
Two major weaknesses of the country’s existing anti-corruption and supervisory systems make reforms a pressing imperative. One is overlapping functions and institutions, overstaffing, and low efficiency. In each province, for instance, the local bureau of supervision, bureau for corruption prevention and procuratorate are all charged with investigating embezzlement, bribe taking, dereliction of duty, and prevention of duty-related crimes. Yet such gigantic establishments as well as their hundreds of thousands of functionaries have done little to rein in rampant corruption. It has been the hundreds of inspectors the CPC central authorities dispatched to the provinces that have identified and exposed one scandal after another in the sensational “tiger-hunting”. Reshuffling and reorganizing anti-graft institutions and their functions has obviously become a pressing task, which happens to be the focus of the proposed reforms.
Second is insider, if not self, oversight. Appointments for the supervisory bodies in Chinese cities and provinces are made by same-level Party and government offices. Since those to be supervised are superiors of the supervisors, the outcomes can’t be as good as they should or supposed to be. An extremely important content of this round of reforms is said to be turning “insider oversight” into “outsider oversight”, building a relatively independent supervisory system at all levels of government, which are reportedly to be named “supervisory committees”.
Such a new system will not only integrate the existing supervisory bodies and their functions, but extend the scope of the oversight of the CPC’s discipline watchdog from Party members to all public officials. Whether or not this was the initial intention of the anti-corruption campaign will become clear in this round of reforms. Will this result in a new branch of government in the Chinese political landscape? Will this be a revolution? If the answer is yes, it is proceeding quietly.