Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

27 May 2016

President Xi Jinping is using a mix of anti-corruption measures, administrative reform, and moral discipline to try and crackdown on a culture of corruption, write Macabe Keliher and Hsinchao Wu.

In his rise as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, President Xi Jinping has made cleaning up government corruption one of his greatest tasks.

Unlike previous anti-corruption campaigns, Xi’s is coupled with a systematic effort to not only crackdown on endemic graft and malfeasance, but also target the culture that enables it to fester. This is being done on three fronts: a highly public anti-corruption drive, formalising anti-corruption administrative practices, and instilling moral discipline into the rank and file. Although many of Xi’s initiatives were also undertaken by his predecessors, the current systemisation and formalisation of measures make up a comprehensive program that creates the possibility not only of stamping out corruption, but also of transforming the political culture.

Such measures are necessary, because public office in China today has become a place for profiteering, where political despotism and private greed conspire. Party officials divide themselves into factions and develop networks required for promotion, profit, and protection. To fail to partake in the gift-giving, banqueting, and nepotism could mean the end of one’s political career, exclusion, and persecution. Furthermore, the rampant abuse of authority by state functionaries for private interest at the expense of the public good limits the capacity of the central government to operate.

The current leaders appear intent on changing this. Under the direction of Xi Jinping and anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, the Party has engaged in an extensive and uncompromising anti-corruption campaign. This is the first of the three fronts to fight corruption, and it has taken down some of the most powerful civil and military officials in China, including former security chief and retired Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and the top aide to former president Hu Jintao, Ling Jihua.

In addition to widespread arrests, there are two key proposals being discussed: anti-corruption zones and amnesty. The first of these would create special zones modeled on special economic zones, but rather than marketisation, the anti-corruption zones would pilot political reform and be run by new officials, and their assets made transparent. Similarly, an amnesty might be forthcoming. Rather than attempt the impossible of investigating and arresting all corrupt officials, a conditional amnesty would forgive all offenders of past crimes on the condition they return their ill-gotten gains.

More on this: Conspicuous consumption and corruption in China | Robert Potter

The second front in the anti-corruption fight is administrative reform. Three key reforms aim to give anti-corruption agencies greater autonomy to investigate and arrest. The first is an increase in the number of inspection offices, so that an entire team can monitor provincial-level officials rather than a single individual, who often becomes coopted by local Party leaders. Moreover, these teams of investigators have been given legal powers, such as interrogation and intercepting communications.

Second, the anti-corruption agency has taken control over the appointment of local anti-corruption heads, thereby detaching the position from local Party Committee control. Third, Central Inspection Groups have been revived, whereby irregular and unannounced inspections are sent out to the provinces and ministries.

In addition, Beijing has moved to codify certain administrative adjustments. Rules and regulations are being articulated for many practices, some of which have been in effect since Hu Jintao’s term in office. A formalisation will almost certainly happen in appointments and promotions, most likely beginning at the provincial level. From the data at hand, all provincial- and ministerial-level appointments in 2013 and 2014 were done systematically and in accordance with an official’s bureaucratic rank and position—that is, none of the appointments indicate patronage or special favor. It is expected that this informal practice will be formalised in regulations.

Standardising and restructuring salaries are also major initiatives. Currently, official salaries are not made known, even internally, and to the extent that they are known, salaries for a similar-level post can vary widely. Transparency will help clarify how much officials make legally, and should be making. Such a measure is also discussed in concert with the complete elimination of perks, such as housing and transportation.

The third front is moral discipline. Xi speaks frequently of the need to combat excessive bureaucratisation, hedonism, and use of public funds and position for personal advancement. Rather than laying out clear guidelines and rules, however, he tells officials to examine themselves and act righteously.

Less amorphous are the guidelines set for the proper livelihood of officials. An internal Party regulation circulated has standardised the number of cars for officials of various ranks and position, who can have secretaries, the size and value of residences, and which officials can have a security detail. Furthermore, regulations require officials to report if they remarry or divorce, and to give reasons and justifications for the decision.

Together, these three initiatives—anti-corruption, administrative reform, and moral discipline—aim to instill discipline in an increasingly deviant bureaucracy. More than just centralising power, the overarching trend of this program aims to force a shift in norms and behaviours, thereby changing the shared assumptions and practices that inform the political dealings of the society—from the approval of permits to the promotion of judges.

Seen in this way, the Party leadership is trying to do nothing less than transform China’s political culture. Success may depend on how well these various elements and initiatives remain focused in a cohesive program.

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Keliher, M. and Wu, H. (2016). Cleaning up China’s corruption - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: