Commentary / World

Corruption exists; it's the response that matters

by Curtis S. Chin

In recent months, Chinese consumers have seen U.S. companies in China come under government criticism, if not outright attack, for food safety, price fixing and other unsavory practices. The not-so subtle message to China’s citizens could well be: Don’t go thinking foreign brands, products or behaviors are better than those of China.

That message now could well be expanded to the behavior of government leaders as senior officials in both China and the United States have been brought down by corruption charges. The New York Times has even reported higher suicide rates among Chinese officials as one possible result of an ongoing anti-corruption drive.

Yet, critical differences also abound as contrasting approaches to fighting corruption underscore that China, for now, still remains more a country ruled by party or “people” than rule by law.

In the U.S., former Gov. Bob McDonnell of the state of Virginia was recently convicted by a federal court in Richmond for taking bribes, derailing the career of the formerly rising political star, once touted as a presidential or vice presidential candidate.

The verdict stemmed from charges related to his and his wife Maureen’s helping a wealthy businessman, Jonnie Williams, in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans.

The former governor was found guilty of 11 of the 13 counts he faced. McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts. Both are expected to appeal their convictions.

A world away, in China, a much touted anti-corruption drive against “tigers” and “flies” — from powerful leaders to lowly bureaucrats in the ranks of national, provincial and municipal government as well as in Chinese media and the military — unfolds as Xi Jinping has consolidated power and set the tone for his leadership since becoming China’s president in March 2013.

In the parlance of the Chinese, the McDonnells would no doubt be tigers — “big fish,” not “small fry,” in American English slang.

McDonnell is one of the most senior U.S. elected officials brought down by corruption in recent years. But others have included numerous governors from U.S. President Barack Obama’s own home state of Illinois.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is serving time in prison for trying to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat. As noted in U.S. media, McDonnell joins at least eight other former governors, from both major U.S. political parties, who have been convicted of corruption in recent years after having had their day in court, or pleaded guilty in a plea deal.

And therein lies an important difference between U.S. and Chinese efforts to police corruption: the role of an independent judiciary and of a free media. Corruption exists in every country. It is the response — from government, from law enforcement, from media and others — that matters.

In trials in the U.S., often widely and aggressively covered by journalists, U.S. politicians and business leaders, like all Americans, also have recourse to law and legal counsel, and the chance to defend themselves. Verdicts are not foregone conclusions, written before the charges are filed.

For China’s anti-corruption efforts to succeed in the long run, Xi must pair this latest anti-corruption campaign with the more difficult political and systemic reforms. Otherwise, his efforts may well be perceived as little different that those of his predecessors, though the “tigers” might will be bigger this time around.

In the past, anticorruption campaigns in China have been used to conceal political struggles inside the Communist party. Frequent official announcements of corrupt officials being brought to “justice” have also been used by the Party to demonstrate its own achievements while seeking to limit the space for outside anti-corruption voices.

In 2013, China watchers were riveted by the then largest political scandal to unfold in years, namely the downfall off Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing and one-time high-flyer and potential future national leader and rival to Xi Jinping.

Bo’s wife Gu Kailai had in August 2012 been given a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman in Chongqing.

Bo’s trial began on Aug. 22, 2013, at the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, Shandong province and ended just four days later. On Sept. 22, he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison. On Oct. 9, 2013, a Chinese Court said it would hear Bo’s appeal. On Oct. 25, that appeal was rejected.

Bloomberg News this summer reported that “Xi’s nationwide campaign to rein in graft has ensnared more than 480 officials spanning all of China’s provinces and largest cities.

Investigations, reportedly but not so transparently, now continue as Xi moves to take down the biggest tiger yet.

This July, Xinhua released a statement saying that China’s former security chief Zhou Yongkang was being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations” — often code words for corruption. Officials in China are typically detained in secret, with no opportunity to address charges publicly.

In his campaign to catch both tigers and flies, Xi may well be advancing a systematic effort to stem the corruption that undercuts support for and could well one day threaten the legitimacy of one-party Communist rule. But he will also have to address the underlying system if he is to change both the perception and the reality of modern China.

According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, which ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, China continues to do poorly. In 2013, China ranked only 80th out of some 177 places reviewed. The U.S. ranked 19th. At the top are Denmark and New Zealand. At the bottom of the list are Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia.

In China today, anticorruption efforts and the transparency around such efforts only go so far. Western media have drawn the ire of Chinese officials by reporting on the wealth of family members of China’s senior leaders.

In contrast, in the U.S., media and increasingly social media play a role in bringing attention to abuses of power and the need for change.

The state of Virginia is reportedly moving to strengthen its ethics rules. Corruption surely exists in many places, including in places that require some form of financial disclosure of the assets of top leaders. China is not alone in not requiring such transparency.

But all citizens ultimately — including more and more netizens today taking to the Internet to right perceived injustices — will have greatest confidence in systems driven by rule of law, not by personal vendetta or power pushes. As the latest corruption campaign continues to unfold in China, that nation’s own people are likely keeping tabs whether anyone associated with Xi Jinping will be tagged in this latest effort.

There may well be more talk and action against enemies, perceived or real, and against the corruption that threatens government and individual officials’ legitimacy. But with no significant change to the underlying system, it will continue to be the case in China, if not in the U.S., that there are still some people above the law.

Curtis S. Chin, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin