Less than a year into his term, President Xi Jinping has made fighting graft a priority
Powerful leaders and lowly officials have all been targeted
Beijing has limited lavish banquets and gift-giving
This month's On China discusses the reasons behind the anti-corruption campaign
Editor’s Note: This month’s episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout examines the country’s fight against corruption and premieres on Wednesday, October 16 at 5.30pm Hong Kong time. Click here for air times.
In China, they’re called the “tigers and flies,” the powerful leaders and lowly officials all targeted by China’s corruption crackdown. Less than a year into his term, President Xi Jinping has made fighting graft one of his priorities, vowing to punish every corrupt official, and to make no exceptions. And under his leadership, Beijing has even made a point of addressing seemingly trivial excess, limiting banquets to “four courses and one soup” and banning the use of public funds to buy moon cakes.
In this month’s On China, we examine why corruption is prevalent at all levels of Chinese society, discuss the reasons behind Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, and explore whether it’s even possible to root out corruption in China and the Communist Party. Joining us at the table are Reuters’ Beijing-based correspondent Benjamin Lim, China scholar Willy Lam, and author and social commentator Lijia Zhang.
Kristie Lu Stout: Lijia Shang, Willy Lam and Benjamin Lim, welcome to On China. Right now, China is waging this war against corruption and in any battle you have to define the target, so what is corruption?
Benjamin Lim: I think corruption is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture like the Chinese word for giving a gift is songli and li means a gift or respect and so by giving a gift, you’re showing respect. Like parents, of course with you know the students must show respect to teachers right so parents of students will give teachers gifts.
And do you consider that corruption? If someone needs to go to the hospital, he’d have to give a red envelope to the doctor. Is that corruption? In the West, in democracies, people abide by the rules and regulations and so if something cannot be done, they won’t do it, but in China if you need to do something, if you need something done, the first thing you do is you think of a guanxi, a connection who can help you get your children into a good school, jump the queue and get medical treatment or whatever.
Willy Lam: I think the root cause is really the lack of rule of law. I think China is a huge country with 1.5 billion people so there are not enough resources. If there were rule of law, judicial fairness then people can sue those who try to jump the queue, but unfortunately there is no rule of law, so people who have good guanxi, people who have good connections with the so called red aristocracy, the top officials they can grease the palm of the officials to get things done and jump the queue and so forth.
I think that there is an unwritten law that for officials of different categories say from county chief to department head to nice ministers of officials or whatever or even politburo members that are gradation the scale of money you need to get things done. I think this is quite well understood in Chinese society.
Lijia Zhang: I think ever since Xi Jinping took power he has launched this vigorous anti-corruption (campaign) and he said this is a life and death matter. So I’d say the main target is officials so they have introduced all sorts of new measures.
For example no red carpet and officials cannot spend massive amounts of money on having banquets. Now they can go out for a conference or whatever and they’re allowed only four dishes and one soup and they’re not allowed to use official cars for their personal gain. They’re not allowed a bonus. Before they often generously paid themselves a bonus and now they cannot work overtime in their spare time. There’s no extra pay. So I think the people feel the impact of officials, but there are other ways to deal with that.
Kristie Lu Stout: You mention for the Chinese communist party, fighting corruption is a matter of life and death. Why is it a matter of survival for the party? Why is it that critical?
Lijia Zhang: Because corruption has become so widespread and has really damaged the reputation of the party and damaged the legitimacy of the party, which is for the very survival of the party and he feels the need to have this launch corruption campaign. William, I totally agree, it’s a total lack of rule of law. And also I think the current political structure has been in place for so long, no change has become a really rich breeding ground for corruption.
Benjamin Lim: It’s hard to generalize or quantify because there are four types of government officials who are not corrupt: people who are men of integrity, who are incorruptible, people who are too meek and are scared to be corrupt, people who have ambition and want to climb the political ladder and will not be corrupt and people who are not in a position to be corrupt.
If you look at other third-world countries, corruption in urban and rural areas is widespread. In third-world countries the corruption, even when you arrive at the airport the customs officials, the immigration officials will be stealing your stuff, right in front of you. But you don’t see that in China. You don’t see that happening at the Beijing airport; at the Shanghai airport. I think corruption in urban areas is more restrained, compared with rural areas. I think the difference is 10, 20 years ago corruption didn’t involve a large amount of money. But today corruption from one deal, they would be able to walk away with 10 million,100 million. So the amount involved is much bigger. I think that’s the difference.
Kristie Lu Stout: Ben I’m hearing you, you’re saying there’s corruption in China, like elsewhere in the world. But it’s not as bad as one might think. There are individuals of integrity. There are areas of China, the urban areas less corrupt than other areas. But what I’m trying to get into is that it still seeps into the daily lives of Chinese, whether it’s trying to gain access to a hospital bed or trying to improve your test scores it school. It is out there isn’t it?
Lijia Zhang: Absolutely, corruption has always been there are always surveys and corruption always been voted as the most hated social problem, the top concern among ordinary people. But I think that’s also everybody hates corruption, but also everybody is part of corruption. You talk about hospital beds, for example by father fell ill very badly last year. There was a decent hospital near my home, but the hospital beds were all full. One of our relatives managed to get my father a private bed, private room which was reserved for a high ranking leader. My father was not entitled to and in return this head of the hospital his son wanted to go to a good school, so my relative was able to manage that.
Lijia Zhang: The tigers refers to big corrupt officials and the flies little officials. The truth is so far (in the) anti-corruption campaign most of the corrupt officials being caught are flies, with very few tigers.
Willy Lam: Even though the party and state and even military have separate anti-corruption units, it’s still basically a matter of the party investigating itself. There are no checks and balances. There are no independent organizations against corruption, which are available in Hong Kong and Singapore. So at the end of the day even though I think Xi Jinping’s policy of restricting conspicuous consumption, putting an end to banquets and six star hotels, this is popular. None the less, regarding big time corruption that means the passing of the envelope, greasing the palm through a billion yuan kick back or advantages, all of this continues to go on. I think one simple example is that Xi Jinping has not been able to pass a regulation of a so called sunshine regulation of getting senior officials to declare their assets, their spouse’s assets and also their children’s assets. So this regulation that has been proposed for the past five or six years has not been passed.
Benjamin Lim: Of course, it’s all about as we said earlier in the beginning that it’s ingrained in Chinese culture, it’s lack of rule of law, it’s lack of transparency because there are no immediate freedoms, there are no checks and balances. It’s like you know if a person is ill, he takes his own pulse, prescribes his own medicine, he takes an x-ray of himself and then if need be, he will operate on himself. That’s not possible, but that’s what is happening in China.
Kristie Lu Stout: Willy is giving Xi Jinping kind of a mixed review if you’re looking back on the last year of his handling of corruption in China. Ben and Lijia, your thoughts on Chinese President Xi.
Benjamin Lim: I think Xi Jinping is in the process of consolidating power. I think he is no Mao, who was a demi god; he’s no Deng Xiaoping who was a political strongman. If you compare him with Jiang Zemin it depends on whether it’s the first half of Jiang Zemin’s rule or the second half of Jiang’s rule. He’s stronger compared with Jiang’s first half, but he’s weaker compared with Jiang’s second half. Because he’s a princeling, he’s more confident, he’s I think politically stronger than Hu Jintao. But that said, I think he’s still in the process of consolidating power. He um I think he is no, he’s neither a closet liberal nor an ultra-conservative. I think he’s a pragmatist, a realist. What he’ll do, he’ll do what it takes to keep the communist party in power. He may reform China on the economic front, but you know he’s no Gorbachev, he won’t dig the party’s grave. You know he won’t democratize China because you know that could lead the party’s death. And so I think Xi Jinping, he’s a risk taker. We have seen what he has done on several fronts even though he has been in power less than a year, he has moved faster than a lot of people expected. And I would say maybe even bolder than what people expected. On the corruption front, he’s taken down Jiang Jiemin, he’s taken down the energy minister and the head of the top regulator of state owned enterprises and of course the Bo Xilai trial was a leftover case, but I think he has also tried to introduce judicial transparency.
Kristie Lu Stout: Xi Jinping is a bit of a paradox isn’t he? You just said he’s a pragmatist, but he’s also a risk taker. He’s powerful, but not powerful enough because he’s still consolidating his power. I wanted to get the social view inside China, what the people inside China make of their president and the impact he’s made on corruption in China the last year. Are they happy?
Lijia Zhang: I think one of the reasons Xi Jinping has the anti-corruption campaign is to consolidate his power, win some popularity. I think he is generally quite welcomed by ordinary people. Some officials now they have to, they feel the pinch, there is certainly some resentment. For example recently the moon cake festival. I worked at a factory for ten years. The moon cake festival time everybody was given a few cakes or a box of cakes as a kind of social welfare, but now it’s nothing like that. This is a small deal, but also no bonus, and all of these things so it causes certain resentment.
Kristie Lu Stout: I want to talk about one other figure, not just Xi Jinping, but Wang Qishan. He is the man in charge of China’s anti-corruption drive. Can you tell me more about who he is, why was he selected and how effective he will be at the end of the day?
Willy Lam: What people are looking at is whether the anti-corruption agencies will be doing anything to this high-level corruption and so forth amongst the princelings, the sons and daughters of the senior officials. Fair or unfair, there is a perception they are making multi-billion yuan profits. So I think Wang Qishan has his job cut out for him because he’s a princeling, he has a track record for being an efficient administrator.
Lijia Zhang: And clean.
Willy Lam: He has a relatively clean reputation. He’s known as a Mister Clean.
Kristie Lu Stout: Both Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping said that in this anti-corruption drive, they’re going to be targeting the tigers and the flies. What does that mean, tigers and flies?
Lijia Zhang: The tigers, by the way this phrase that’s not his creation. Chairman Mao came out with this phrase in the 1950s. The tigers refers to big corrupt officials and the flies little officials. The truth is so far, anti-corruption campaign most of the corrupt officials being caught are flies, with very few tigers.
Willy Lam: Xi Jinping has only caught one tiger, a very powerful former head of the CNPC, the China National Petroleum Corporation. All of us observers in Beijing or Hong Kong are wondering whether he will do something to Zhou Yongkang, who is a member of the standing committee.
Kristie Lu Stout: The ex-security chief of China?
Willy Lam: Yes, yes and also a senior member of the petroleum faction because he spent most of his career in the petroleum industry. At least half of the vice-ministerial and ministerial levels who Xi Jinping has brought to justice have close connections to Zhou Yongkang, so I think this is a very important litmus test as to whether Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping are willing to break certain conventions. Because there is one well-known convention within the communist party, even though it is not publicized and that is former and current officials of the politburo standing committee are untouchable. You cannot touch them with criminal offenses.
Lijia Zhang: Unless they’ve made a powerful enemy, upset the very top leaders. Unless they have done something to embarrass the government or authority. As you mentioned Bo Xilai’s case. Which of course the Chinese government says in a typically self-congratulatory way say this is the result of anti-corruption. Everybody knows this is a power struggle, political rivalry.
Benjamin Lim: Xi Jinping has to become strong in order to reform. But of course if he becomes strong, he may not reform.
Kristie Lu Stout: Is it true there’s a saying in China, that behind every corrupt official, there’s a mistress?
Lijia Zhang: Absolutely.
Kristie Lu Stout: And jilted mistresses have stepped forward to expose corrupt officials? They’re part of this anti-corruption campaign too aren’t they?
Lijia Zhang: This is a very telling sign the jilted mistress. They have become the most effective way in combating corruption. Just in May, Liu Tienan, very powerful official, was exposed after his mistress exposed his dealings involving millions of US dollars. And another corrupt tobacco official, he was exposed and given a 13 year sentence after his mistress posted his sex diary. He had lots of mistresses, he wrote down. When these mistresses become the most effective way (to expose corruption) that means the government crackdown hasn’t been very effective.
Kristie Lu Stout: And the thing is this: in China, a sex scandal isn’t just a sex scandal, because it often involves public money. It’s a political scandal. And these stories get huge because of social media. Social media has really amplified these stories. Can we talk about that, just the impact that’s had on corruption and on fighting corruption in China?
Willy Lam: I think up to now, the one difference for Xi Jinping is that he has been encouraging social media, Sina Weibo, to expose the corrupt officials. However, it’s well understood that it’s only up to a certain level. Netizens can only expose officials up to perhaps at most vice-ministerial level and not the really big tigers. At the same time, we have seen, unfortunately, the incident police having arrested a large number of these enthusiastic netizens, precisely for exposing the crimes or other corruption cases of officials.
Kristie Lu Stout: Yeah, why is this happening? You’re seeing this internet crackdown targeting opinion leaders online and on the social networks of China. Why are they being targeting when they’re exposing graft and corruption?
Willy Lam: I think the major difference is that while these human rights activists or activists using the Weibo. They are not just exposing the corruption of individual officials, but also exposing the nature of the entire party. That it is not a democratic system. That it doesn’t have checks and balances.
Kristie Lu Stout: At the end of the day the bottom line, there are no checks and balances. There’s no transparency or freedom of the press, no rule of law. So in this kind of system, what meaningful reform can there be?
Lijia Zhang: There will not be meaningful real reform, because the general reform will require a leader that will have courage and will hurt the interests of his family and friends.
Benjamin Lim: But I’m cautiously optimistic that Xi Jinping may reform 5 years from now, starting from his second term, if the time is right, if the pros outweigh the cons, and if reform will help perpetuate, I know this is a contradiction, will help perpetuate the Communist party and his rule. I know it’s a paradox right? So Xi Jinping has to become strong in order to reform. But of course if he becomes strong, he may not reform.
Willy Lam: I think they might carry out some kind of reform with Chinese characteristics that means reform which at the same time will strengthen the party’s status as the perennial ruling party. So perhaps what Hu Jintao, the former president, called inter-party democracy a reform within the party so that the party operations become more efficient, and even the anti-corruption measures within the party become more efficient. But really, the most important thing and that is checks and balances and independent agency to investigate corruption, that will be for the long, long haul indeed.
Lijia Zhang: I think the campaign is not far from being blown over. We mentioned his talk about self-criticism, this could serve as a warning. And I heard that soon there will be a campaign. They will catch a big tiger from each province. But again you guess, which tiger will get caught. The most corrupt one, or the most politically weak? But still catching a tiger it’s better than, it’s good. If the tigers are cleaned, the flies all vanish.
Kristie Lu Stout: Benjamin Lim, Willy Lam, Lijia Zhang, we’ll leave it at that. Thank you so much for shedding so much insight on corruption in China. I really enjoyed that discussion thank you.