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China: the politics of fighting corruption

The well-publicised trial of Bo Xilai, a former politburo member and populist politician, for corruption and abuse of power does not prove China is serious about fighting corruption. Nor does it show that no one, not even a powerful politician, is above the rule of law. This elaborately choreographed prosecution is simply an exercise in demonstrating where power lies in an authoritarian state.

In March Transparency International welcomed China’s strong commitment to fighting corruption and called on the authorities to take concrete steps to uphold best international practices for preventing and prosecuting corruption both at home and abroad. Show trials are not part of this process.

Unfortunately, further evidence that the authorities do not understand what works to prevent corruption was the recent arrest of several activists for advocating that officials in China publish asset declarations. In this case the rule of law was used to thwart people who were actually proposing a policy that is known to help expose corruption. The recent arrest of human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong on charges of public disturbance, primarily because he has spoken out against corruption, also sends the wrong message.

Transparency International believes that the more people know about where government money is spent, the better. Publishing asset declarations of public officials is an important way to allow ordinary people access to information about government officials. It can help ensure they are not abusing their power for personal gain. It is ordinary people who suffer most when officials demand bribes for public services.

Bo Xilai

Breaking the cycle of corruption in public institutions will take a concerted effort to apply the rule of law without discrimination or political motivation. Bo Xilai lost a politburo power struggle and his public fall from grace will warn others not to try to challenge those at the top.

The choice of what charges the prosecutor decided to bring against Bo Xilai is indicative of the careful moves required to end his career, protect the reputation of other party leaders and send a strong message that loyalty to the party is paramount. The charges of corruption, for example, dated from a period between 1993 and 2000 – before he was promoted – and the amounts he is alleged to have received in bribes, equivalent to about US$4 million are significantly less than other officials caught raiding government coffers. The point was not to highlight the size of the bribe, rather to ensure a conviction for bribes not related to a time when he was supported by current top officials.

Everyone equal before the law

China’s leaders are well aware that the economic gains China has made from opening up its economy have not been universally enjoyed and that endemic corruption is making this worse. The gap between rich and poor, particularly between rural and urban centres, remains at worrying levels. In January, China’s Gini coefficient figures, the statistical measure of this trend, indicated that there is a significant wealth gap that could lead to instability.

Chinese leaders have also witnessed the uprisings and demonstrations at home and around the globe and in China when ordinary people have taken to the streets to protest against corruption. One way to address people’s concerns would be to focus on strengthening institutions and to stop singling out a few high-profile cases for political ends. Fighting corruption requires consistent application of the rule of law for everyone, not show trials or crackdowns on civil society.


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