Prof. Zheng Yongnian Fighting Corruption and China’s Second Political Revolution

Interesting article on China’s current anti-corruption campaign and what it all means by Zheng Yongnian. Zheng was born in Zhejiang, graduated from Beijing University, got a PhD in political science from Princeton and now teaches at Singapore National University. Wiki bio at


By Zheng Yongnian Fighting Corruption and China’s Second Political Revolution

— Singapore National University, East Asian Institute Chair

博主:朱民志  发表时间:2014-08-12 13:01:49

Corruption in China has now reached a scale that threatens the survival of both the Chinese Communist Party and the PRC state. People always talk about building institutions yet corruption is a product of institutions. Corruption is thus the result of the operation of current institutions – economic, political and administrative. If anti-corruption institutions are not in place, corruption cannot be stopped effectively, much less rooted out. In this sense, all countries will take an institutional approach to punishing corruption, preventing corruption, and establishing an honest government.

Yet China has been building institutions to fight corruption since the opening and reform policy began in 1978. China may well have more and larger scale systems to fight corruption than any other country. Every generation of Chinese Communist Party leadership and every PRC government have increased the number of institutions and mechanisms to fight corruption. So we need to the relation between anti-corruption campaigns and institution building and not simply expect the system to solve the problem of corruption.

In the overall strategy in China’s current anti-corruption campaign – first treat the symptoms and only then cure the disease — makes a great deal of political sense. In fact, corruption has become so serious that curing the disease would be difficult without treating the symptoms first. Every system is built by people and operated by people. Any institution, if it is built by corrupt people or operated by corrupt people, will turn a system that theoretically is well-designed to prevent corruption into a corrupt system. Since the 1980s, China has established many systems to fight corruption but many of the people who run these systems, and indeed the people fighting corruption, are corrupt themselves. Corruption flourishes as a result.

Looking at the problem from this perspective, we should not underestimate the effectiveness of anti-corruption campaigns. Where corruption runs deep, anti-corruption campaigns can help to create a better political situation. Only in an improved political situation will it be possible to build a system that can effectively fight and prevent corruption. The process would run like this: first run a campaign to clean up some particularly egregious corruption and create a good environment for institution building, then create a system and put mechanisms in place for opposing and preventing corruption that meets the needs of the day. Finally, use the institutions and mechanisms to guarantee honesty in government.

Corruption in China’s Communist Party Runs from the Top to the Bottom

Naturally the anti-corruption campaign should not be presented as just a political campaign. The current anti-corruption campaign, although it appears to resemble the anti-corruption campaigns of the past, has already broken the mold in at least three ways. First, this anti-corruption campaign is not a populist mass movement. In fact, the space allowed for a mass inspired bottom-up anti-corruption campaign through the Internet has been tightened very greatly. This is particularly evident when we reflect how in past years Chinese people spontaneously created anti-corruption by agitation on the internet. That had become almost the predominant type of anti-corruption campaign. But no more.

The present anti-corruption campaign, however, is a top-down anti-corruption campaign conducted within the Chinese Communist Party. Although enterprises are sometimes involved in specific cases, this campaign is aimed at Communist Party and government officials, and particularly at high-ranking officials. The concept of the anti-corruption campaign itself is not problematical; the issue is whether the campaign is conducted according to the law. Democratic countries also have anti-corruption campaigns. This campaign has tended to be put on a legal basis more than previous anti-corruption campaigns. In any institutional environment, corruption will tend to accumulate and so a campaign will be needed to clean things up. The format of the anti-corruption campaign does not necessarily conflict with rule by law as long as the anti-corruption campaign is conducted in the spirit of rule by law.

Building institutions to fight and prevent corruption is important. To judge by formal structures and their numbers, China has already has these. However, there is much room for improvement, particularly in the effectiveness and authoritativeness of these institutions. First of all, China has too many institutions for fighting and preventing corruption. The problem is that its internal mechanism is too diverse and scattered. The corruption prevention and fighting system is not an integrated whole and lacks coordination. Political responsibility is not defined clearly. The various institutions checkmate one another and shirk responsibility so that is a great deal of waste. This leaves a lot of space that creates opportunities for corrupt elements.

Up to the present, anti-corruption institutions have lacked authority. This has been a serious weakness since these campaigns were in the form of the ‘right hand fights corruption of the left hand’ and the ‘left hand prevents corruption in the right hand’. The same level of Party Committee or government would both be leading and be the object of anti-corruption campaigns. They would be in charge of preventing and fighting their own corruption. This kind of system design is bound to fail. A situation in which each level of Party Committee leads its own anti-corruption campaign creates a situation in which the Party Committee itself is the root of corruption. Allowing each level of Communist Party Committee to guide its own anti-corruption work is creating a situation like the old saying of the robbers who clumsily defend themselves by saying “The 300 taels of silver aren’t buried here!”

These two improvements – authority and higher levels inspect lower levels – have made the anti-corruption campaigns conducted since the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party more vigorous and more effective than previous campaigns. First, the old problem that nobody is in charge of the anti-corruption campaign has been resolved. Now everyone in China knows who is in charge of anti-corruption work and to whom corruption should be reported. Moreover, this campaign has strengthened the authority of the Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Today, we can see that that subordinate organizations of the Central Disciplinary Commission have been placed in anti-corruption organizations. Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission personnel dispatched to all levels of the leading departments and commissions of the Central Committee and central government are in charge of anti-corruption work. Unlike in the past, the leading Party and government departments and commissions are no longer in charge of fighting their own corruption.

The system being implemented now is “manage the next lower level”. That is, anti-corruption work at the provincial level is being carried out by the Disciplinary and Inspection Commission of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. This breaks with the old system in which each provincial committee did its own anti-corruption work. If it hadn’t been for these two changes in the system, it would be hard to imagine how officials at each level from the flies to the tigers could be investigated. After this anti-corruption campaign is over, these innovations need to be institutionalized and strengthened.

Even if these reforms should succeed, we should not overly idealize the importance of institutionalizing corruption prevention and anti-corruption work. We can’t pin all our hopes on it. International experience shows that honesty in government requires not just effective institutions and mechanisms for preventing and fighting corruption but also that they work together well. They also need to coordinate with other economic, social, administrative institutions and arrangements. How can China today, make all these institutions be made to work harmoniously together to fight corruption? This is a big systems engineering problem. Here we can only touch on a few aspects of it.

The reform of the economic system means eliminating the institutional foundations of the economic oligarchs. The third session of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party made “marketization” the goal of enterprise reform. Marketization means that enterprises operations will be transparent and open. Under the 1990s policy of “keeping the big state enterprises and selling off the smaller ones” big groups of state owned enterprises were organized. This was the correct policy direction but marketization was not achieved. The result has been that today these state-owned enterprises have turned into the family businesses of high officials. These businesses operate in a highly monopolistic fashion. They are very closed in both hiring and promotions.

The Closed Networks of State Enterprises

Take any Chinese state enterprise. You will easily discover that its management layers from top to bottom are filled with the relatives and friends of officials. An ordinary person, even if they are extraordinarily talented, has a hard time penetrating the networks of the state enterprises. The barriers between social classes in Chinese society are getting harder to penetrate. The closed nature of state enterprises is one reason for this. If the family business nature of state enterprises does not change, it will be very hard to make it more open.

In the economic realm, establishing a budgeting system is equally important for fighting corruption and promoting honesty in government. In recent years, establishing a budget system has been the precondition for any country to promote honesty in government. The budget is the blood of the government system. If you can control the blood flow, then you will be able to prevent and fight corruption. Therefore government needs to prove how every penny is spent. This makes it easy to understand why accounting, auditing and other work involving quantitative measures are among the most important professions in any developed country. From this perspective, today’s China has not yet developed a budgeting system in the modern sense.

In China, the so-called budget mostly is an indication of how fiscal resources have been politically and administratively allocated. In other words, how political and administrative power are used to get budget resources. The methods of allocating and actually distributing resources are not transparent. A Chinese leader can have astronomical budgetary resources at his disposal to an extent that is unimaginable in other modern countries. China has never developed a modern auditing system and so control of budgetary resources is done by political means. In the absence of a modern budget system, even the biggest anti-corruption campaign cannot be effective.

Reducing and controlling the power of officials is the way forward in administrative reform. “We need to confine power to a box”. If officials have too much power, it will be very hard to make a box for it. Even more important are reducing the official powers and the scope of authority of government officials. This means that government must delegate to lower levels the authority to make administrative approvals. Authority should be delegated to enterprises and to people in society. If much power is delegated to enterprises and people in society, that it will be much easier to put the authority of the government in a box.

Reforming society is just as important. Corruption is often the result of abuse of official power, seeking rents from power, or seeking special privileges. The various privileges that officials have in various fields need to be curtailed and controlled. But this no magic bullet. The experience of many countries shows that the socialization of “special privileges” is very important. Every citizen, including officials, should enjoy a good social security system. If not, official will constantly scheme to get special privileges for which they can collect rents. Civil servants need earn a rate of pay that can assure them a decent standard of living. If they don’t earn decent pay, then that will affect their motivation to do their jobs and make them create “hidden rules” that will enable them to extract rents in exchange for power.

This moment in China’s current political ecology now is an historic opportunity to fight corruption. It is also an historic opportunity to establish a system to prevent and to fight corruption. This is not merely because corruption has reached a serious extent but also because now a new generation of leaders is taking charge. If this new generation of leaders can fight corruption, there is no guarantee that the succeeding generation will do so as well. There is no excuse for the present generation of leaders to shirk their responsibilities.

Most important off all, Chinese politics is now at a turning point. If the current corrupt political ecology does not change, three kinds of bad consequences could result.

• First, the regime could gradually turn into a right-wing dictatorship as economic oligarchs become political oligarchs.
• Second, the regime could gradually turn to populism as it loses its basic legitimacy, the people rise up in revolt and a new revolutionary regime is created.
• Third, the regime could change into right wing populism as the political oligarchs and the economic oligarchs join forces just as they have in Ukraine today – one oligarch, one party, multiple political parties mobilizing their supporters in vicious fighting.

Naturally, different historical circumstances will produce different results or even a vicious cycle running through each of these possibilities.

Fighting corruption remains a long-term task. China needs to seize its opportunity to conduct a large scale and continuing anti-corruption movement and to build a new system of institutions that will prevent and fight corruption. If China succeeds, people will call it “China’s second political revolution”.

The author is the chair of the Singapore National University’s East Asian Institute
August 12, 2014 United Morning News



博主:朱民志  发表时间:2014-08-12 13:01:49


























About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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One Response to Prof. Zheng Yongnian Fighting Corruption and China’s Second Political Revolution

  1. Pingback: Chinese Media Censorship and Fighting Corruption | 高大伟 David Cowhig's Translation Blog

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