Prof. Zheng Yongnian: What Does China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Tell Us?

Another analysis of the corruption problem among Party and government officials in China from Prof.  Zheng Yongnian’s blog.  The continuing corruption crackdown is part of the ongoing efforts at  centralized reform ( 集中式改革) to do something about it.

 Zheng was born in Zhejiang Province,  graduated from Beijing University,  got his PhD in political science from Princeton and now teaches at Singapore National University.    Zheng’s Wiki bio at   and Baidu Wiki bio at   This commentary appeared in Singapore’s  United Morning News on August 5.  

 There are many good articles on Professor Zheng’s blog at

What Does China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Tell Us?

By Zheng Yongnian

August 6, 2014

With the case of former Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang having been filed and now being examined, the anti-corruption campaign underway since the convening of the Eighteenth Party Congress has is moving towards a new level of intensity.  Although people have been expecting this for some time, it also made public attention in the anti-corruption campaign even greater.

Among the various reaction and reflection being made on this case, three stand out.   First, the Zhou Yongkang case breaks with the Chinese Communist Party tradition of “leaders are not punished”.  From now on, no matter how high an official’s position, if he is corrupt then he will certainly be punished.  Second, ever since the current anti-corruption campaign started, Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou of the PLA has been seen by outside world as symbols of the “big tigers”.  Now that these two “big tigers” have been taken care of, some say that the anti-corruption campaign should come to a close.  Third, many people have been calling all along for putting an end to this kind of anti-corruption campaign that is conducted in the style of a political campaign.  These people say that the emphasis should turn to build a new system and that through system building and particularly by promoting rule of law, is the best way to fight corruption.

        These reactions make sense.  We need to reconsider how we do Chinese-style anti-corruption campaigns.   However, all these viewpoints do not reflect an understanding of the core issues that this anti-corruption campaign aims to resolve.   Actually, if we cannot leave behind some traditional thinking about anti-corruption work, it will be hard to do more thorough anti-corruption work and to finally achieve the political objective of creating honest government.

        First, “great men are not punished” has historically been a false proposition.  In the traditional system, except for the Emperor himself, anyone could be punished.   Throughout the history of China’s many dynasties, it has been very rare that any Emperor has had a court in which “great men” were not punished.  In Chinese political philosophy, “great man” is just an idealistic theoretical concept.  In thousands of years of Chinese history, there have been very few officials who met the philosopher’s standard of a “great man”.  China has only the concept of rule by law (法制) (this is official use law to rule the country) but not the concept of rule of law (法治)   (that is the official himself must obey the law).  Corruption and crimes committed by officials often escaped legal sanctions.  However if an official was found to threatening or challenging the dynasty itself, punishment was certain no matter how high the official’s position.  Through China’s history, it is hard to count the numbers of “great men” who have been killed by emperors.  This tradition continued after 1949 in the People’s Republic of China.  In the era before reform, Mao Zedong set off wave after wave of political campaigns.  Disaster befell many “great men”.  Not until the 1990s and the few years since have people thought that there is a “tradition” of not punishing great men.

            The very existence of this false proposition is a fraud foisted upon society and officials.  For society, this has two implications.   On one hand, all “great men” are seen as corrupt as in the expression “all officials are corrupt”.  On the other hand, “great men” cannot be punished.   Many people will express from a moral standpoint their contempt for corruption, but once they themselves get an official position or an opportunity to be corrupt, they become corrupt.   For officials, the two implications are that “great men” will not be punished or that their chances of being punished are smaller.  The other is that “great men” have a natural moral superiority and so “corruption” will not sway their actions.

For thousands of years, this false conception of corruption has in the end harmed not only imperial courts but also the interests of the state and of society.  There is a simple logic behind this.  Officials will seek all sorts of opportunities to maximize their corruption.  Law is merely a convenient tool.   A rule of law society cannot be created under those circumstances.  Regime capacity declines and they are no longer able to provide even minimal services to the people and become unable to make themselves legitimate in the eyes of the people.  Finally, as a result of the interaction of various factors, all regimes ended either in a popular uprising or in a revolution.  Even more tragic was that the new regime, after a period of honest governance, would always sink into the same kinds of corruption as before.  Throughout its history, China has been unable to escape this eternal vicious cycle.

Anti-Corruption Work Has Only Just Begun

The second idea is that once the “big tigers” have been punished that the anti-corruption campaign can come to an end.  There is some history to this idea but it has harmful consequences.  As I have written before in this column, the main goal of this anti-corruption campaign is to oppose oligarchy.   When you look at it from that perspective, the anti-corruption campaign has only just begun.  The campaign should continue and be extended into other areas of oligarchy.  The strong voices that call for anti-corruption work finish up often come from oligarchs in these other areas or from people whose interests are threatened.  They have begun to feel the pressure and worry about their futures.  Therefore they very much want anti-corruption work to “come to an end” so that they themselves won’t end up being targets.

        The voices called for it to “come to an end” also come from foreigners who benefit from corruption in China.  China’s economic development took place after opening and reform began.  Many foreign companies came to China and now have large economic interests.  In recent years, people have been discovering that these international companies with their excellent reputations are also engaged in corruption.  Not only are they corrupt themselves but they also openly search for Chinese corrupt “agents”.  There are many stories circulating about how many companies are always trying to “hire” the children and relatives of high ranking officials.  In fact, many children and relatives of high officials have become the agents of foreign companies in China.  Recently, a report published by a big foreign company stated that China’s anti-corruption campaign would reduce China’s GDP by a certain number of percentage points.  The unstated meaning is that the anti-corruption campaign should come to an end at a suitable time.

        No matter how we look at it, there should be no concept of “coming to an end” in anti-corruption work.  Anti-corruption must be the continuing task of all who govern.  Everywhere in the world, in both democracies and authoritarian states, no system can be guaranteed to be free of corruption.  Different kinds of corruption appear in different countries.  No matter what kind of corruption they face, fighting corruption is a difficult task in all countries.  In China, people often have the idea of “it coming to an end” and in practice it has often worked out that way.  The political function of anti-corruption work has often been prominent in China.  Once political authority has become well-established, anti-corruption work suddenly comes to an end.  This kind of anti-corruption campaign, after some officials have been arrested, often gives “protection” to many other corrupt officials.  Once an anti-corruption campaign begins, some officials will use various ways to get out of the storm path.  Once the storm has passed, they go back to their old ways.  Moreover, this gives the outside world the impression that anti-corruption work for the Chinese Communist Party is merely to do a political campaign for political purposes and not for the sake of establishing honest government.

            The third concept, that the anti-corruption work should focus on system building is a very attractive one and is in fact at the heart of the problem.  However, we need to be on guard against having too simple an understanding of the relationship between anti-corruption campaigns and system building.  This is an issue that needs much more thought.  System building, and especially building rule by law and rule of law, are very important forces for fighting corruption.  Nobody doubts that.  It is just that the defects in our systems leads to the corruption we see today.   Ever since reform and opening began, China has placed great stress on system building.  In fact, several generations of leaders and several government have in fact have been continually building new systems and putting in place new measures for fighting corruption and for establishing honest government.  If we consider only the number of systems and measures, China probably has more of them than any other country in the world.  But why is corruption still rampant?   We come here to an important issue – how can we create the political environment need for the construction of an anti-corruption system.  If we don’t have a basically good political environment, then any kind of anti-corruption system will be useless.

Actually, nobody has grounds for feeling the slightest bit satisfied at the progress of anti-corruption work.  Even more there should be no feeling that now is the time we can slack off a bit.  On the contrary, these cases have revealed to the people the most severe warning conceivable:  evidence of just how bad corruption has made the China’s political environment.

            The current anti-corruption campaign has made clear some very worrying trends.

Only the Tip of the Iceberg has been Discovered

First of all is the breadth of corruption.  The goal of this anti-corruption campaign is to fight both “tigers” and “flies”.   But people are discovering that “tigers” and “flies” have spread widely to every department and every level of Party and government organizations including the military.  Thus far, the anti-corruption campaign has only affected a few departments.  However, from the extent of corruption in those departments, it is easy for people to conclude that the corruption discovered up to the present is only the tip of the iceberg.

Next comes the issue of the depth of corruption.  Corruption has already penetrated to the power centers at every level of leadership.  The corruption of local “top leaders” is nothing new.  For many years it has been the biggest headache of the regime.  But today corruption has already penetrated the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission – that is the very core of the Central Committee of the ruling party.  What will be the consequences of corruption at the power centers?  That is a question in everyone’s mind.

        The third issue is the number of corruption cases.  Without getting into other forms of corruption as for example the abuse of power and infringing on the human rights of the people, if we just address the economic scale of corruption, the scale of official corruption has become so large that it goes beyond rational understanding.  People can comprehend that someone might steal several millions or tens of millions because that amount of money can be put to practical use such as a luxurious lifestyle or purposes such as accumulating some wealth for the next generation.  However, when corruption reaches the scale of billions, tens of billions or even hundreds of billions, this is not something that we can comprehend.  That is because that amount of money does not have instrumental use.  In fact, even the corrupt person can’t understand that vast a scale of corruption.

Fourth, and even more important, is that today’s corruption has an oligarchic nature.  That does not mean that there is an oligarch behind every corruption case.  Many cases of corruption on the “fly” level do not involve that.  However, oligarchic corruption has already become the main form of corruption in China today.  During the process of transition from the planned economy to the market economy, economic oligarchs become a reality.  In that respect, China resembles the transitional society of some former communist states such as the Russian Federation, Ukraine and of Eastern Europe.  Moreover, economic oligarchy is a problem facing most countries of the world now.  The problem in China is that these economic oligarchs have started to transform themselves into political oligarchs.   When economic oligarchs mobilize their vast resources to interfere in politics, the overall interests and even the survival of the ruling party are directly threatened.  In recent years, many of the challenges of high level politics have been connected to oligarchs.

        Heretofore, leaders have all said corruption is a matter than can destroy the Communist Party and destroy the state.  However, people have understood this as simply a warning to civil servants and officials.  However the corruption cases revealed now deliver a clear message.  The process of corruption “destroying the Communist Party and destroying the state” is definitely already underway.   Clearly, if this problem is not resolved, we are not far away from the point where the Communist Party and the state will be destroyed.  Even more important, after the Communist Party and the state have been destroyed, China will not be able to avoid becoming what Westerners call a “failed state” and a hopeless society.   This has happened before in history.

Some Chinese Communist Party members used to say this about reform — if it (the Communist Party) does not reform, it will be destroyed and if it reforms, it will be destroyed even faster.  That is making excuses for corruption and is just an excuse for leaders to shirk their responsibilities.   Communist Party governance does have another characteristic however.   As long as the leaders are strongly determined to fight corruption, they will be able to mobilize far more people than the profiteers and the oligarchs can.   Overcoming their strong resistance and pushing forward reforms is the way to create a regime that can govern in peace indefinitely.  Today China has already taken the first step.  I am confident that it can continue moving forward.


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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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