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Anti-corruption: Changing China

China is now well into the second year of its aggressive war against corruption. The ruling Communist Party has committed thousands of its members to the cause and put many more behind bars. But as Wang Qishan – a senior leader of the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, the agency mandated to tackle corruption – admitted last week, the Party faces severe challenges to change behaviours that have become so much a part of everyday life.

From the perspective of an anti-corruption organisation, this is not surprising. Despite the fact that there has been a widespread information campaign to denounce corruption and teach integrity, there is a legitimate concern about how the Communist Party’s war on corruption is being waged.

There is a lack of independence of the judiciary, a lack of clarity on what constitutes corruption, and a lack of transparency in the process of prosecuting wrongdoing.

Hundreds of people have been arrested for corruption from low-level civil servants to top party officials and big multinationals like GlaxoSmithKline have been prosecuted. It is difficult not to see some of the high-profile arrests as being politically motivated. Too often corruption investigations take place behind closed doors, often in specially designed, padded interrogation centres, and more often than not, those arrested confess.

Anti-corruption activists can find themselves the subject of investigation simply for speaking out on asset declarations. Government officials simply disappear from their day jobs when the corruption police show up and never return to work. Suicide rates are on the rise and the number of people fleeing China because of corruption is increasing.

This week the authorities announced the confession of one of China’s top generals following a bribery scandal.

The greater number of stories in the national and international press about corruption in the past year in China is only likely to increase people’s perception that corruption is rampant, even if the authorities are seen to be tackling it.

A Reform Agenda

As part of its 4th Plenum, the Communist Party dedicated a whole day to a discussion about the judiciary, which is controlled by the Party, and its relation to the anti-corruption agenda.

The Party announced reforms to make what constitutes corruption clearer and it reiterated that the fight is far from over. But they do not go far enough.

Transparency International does not agree with the death penalty as a punishment for corruption or any crimes, but this is still used in China, although the number of crimes that are subject to the death penalty dropped from 71 to 46 in the last two years. There is also a two-strand legal system: Party members are subject to the Communist Party laws, which supersede the penal code so there is no single legal standard.

The Communist Party will not create an independent judiciary, something that Transparency International advocates in the fight against corruption, but a move to introduce clarity and consistency in what constitutes corruption is welcome.

Transparency International suggests further key reforms:

  • Penal code reform: China should bring its penal code in line with the anti-corruption legal framework of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). The law must also define “public servants” in the Chinese context, at a time when the planned economy – where everything is controlled by the state – is now increasingly a market economy with more private enterprises.

    China should also use the UNCAC definitions of what constitutes a bribe. A bribe is not simply paying or receiving money and goods for an illegal act or to curry favour, but also includes “initiating” or “promising” any “inappropriate interests”.
  • Outlaw all bribery: China should remove the threshold for bribes. Currently, if an individual pays 5,000 yuan (US$820) or a legal entity pays 200,000 yuan (US$32,700) this is not considered a bribe.
  • Access to information and whistleblower protection: The current Government Information Act should become a national law to ensure people’s access to information. A new law governing the work of whistleblowers is a positive step, but it should be developed into a national law to protect citizens who report corruption via official channels, in particular journalists and bloggers.
  • Asset declarations: A new pilot project, the Citizens’ Fixed Assets Registration in Shenzhen and Guangzhou municipalities of Guangdong province, makes people, including public officials, register the houses they own. This should be expanded across China, making it easier to track officials’ accumulation of assets and check if the salaries they earn are commensurate with their declared wealth.

    The current war on luxury spending and overseas travel may deter overt bribery as it is now harder for officials to receive high-value gifts, but asset declarations are a longer-term record of wealth accumulation that can help identify those who misuse their power for personal gain.
  • Budget transparency: National and local government budgets should be transparent so that people can see if tax payers’ money is effectively spent on projects that improve people’s lives.
  • Safeguard civil society space: Civil society plays an important role in limiting corruption. Despite this, a crackdown on civil society activists remains. Space for civil society to operate is essential for the public to be able to hold corrupt officials to account and to have a genuine independent voice against graft.

Image: Flickr, China RMB

Editor's note: This article was amended on 31 October to note that the Citizens' Fixed Assets Registration project is being piloted in two cities in Guangdong province.


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