Published: 00:34, April 12, 2024
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China’s fight against corruption achieves remarkable results
By Tony Kwok

Some Western critics question the effectiveness of China’s fight against corruption, arguing that after 10 years of intensive anti-corruption efforts, the number of senior officials (ranked above the vice-minister level) under investigation increased last year. In the past year, the Communist Party of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) ordered investigations against 45 high-ranking officials, the highest in the past decade.


There are several likely factors for this trend. First, the campaign to report corruption in the public sector has been successful. When the CCDI dispatches inspection teams to ministries or provinces, the first step taken by these teams is to announce their email addresses and hotline numbers through the internet and install letterboxes to encourage people to lodge complaints against corrupt officials. It resulted in a significantly increased number of complaints received by the authorities.

Second, there has been an improvement in the professionalism of anti-corruption officers. China has established a genuinely independent anti-corruption agency, the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), which is accountable to the National People’s Congress. The NSC’s staff is adequately trained in modern investigation techniques and maintains healthy relations with overseas anti-corruption agencies and the Independent Commission Against Corruption of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, mutually sharing anti-corruption expertise.

In 2023, the NSC intensified its campaign against corruption, achieving new successes. A notable feature of this campaign was its focus on eradicating corruption in specific industries, such as finance, healthcare, sports, rural vitalization and tobacco. This shift from individual cases to the eradication of corruption in particular sectors marked a significant advancement in the fight against corruption. Notable successes included the downfall of former Chinese Football Association (CFA) president Chen Xuyuan, who was sentenced to life imprisonment; the 13-year sentence for Hu Wenming, former chairman of China Shipbuilding Industry Co Ltd, for bribery and abuse of power; and the investigation into Zhang Hongli, former vice-president of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, over severe violations of Party discipline and law. Vigilant enforcement is also followed up with preventive measures, such as the establishment in March of the Party’s Central Financial Commission, headed by Premier Li Qiang, as part of an organizational overhaul of the financial sector.

Another distinctive aspect of the 2023 anti-corruption drive was the relentless crackdown on new and covert forms of corruption. One such example is the emergence of corruption disguised as “cooperative investments”, which involves corruption concealed by a veil of legitimacy, such as arranging for family members to hold shares on behalf of corrupt officials in companies and using their authority to assist the company in making profits through their related approvals and policy influence. The case of Zeng Xinnian, the former vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Yichang’s Wujiagang district, is a typical example. He used his relatives’ names to partner with two individuals who provided funding to set up a construction company. He then used his power to secure projects for the company, and in return, he obtained 20 percent of the company’s shares and earned 20 percent of the company’s profits each year. Although the profits were given to his relatives in name, he was the actual controller. He was convicted, sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, and fined 1 million yuan ($138,000).

Third, there has been an extension of the zero-tolerance approach to include petty corruption, which is most welcomed by the general public, who are often the primary victims of petty corruption, such as extortion in employment, education, healthcare and elderly care. The enforcement target has also expanded from corrupt officials to those who offer bribes to them. According to data from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), from January to November 2023, there was an 18.1 percent year-on-year increase in the prosecution of individuals for offering bribes, totaling 2,306 people. The SPP announced a new policy that severely punishes individuals who give bribes to supervisory, administrative or judicial staff or those involved in the environment, finance, safety production, drugs and food, social insurance, rescue relief, education and healthcare sectors.

Overall, China’s fight against corruption is a multifaceted and evolving process. While challenges remain, the Chinese government has implemented various strategies to address corruption effectively, ... All these developments indicate the government’s belief that combating corruption can succeed only by involving all sectors of society

Furthermore, the fight against corruption is no longer restricted to the public sector. A new amendment to the Criminal Law has extended several criminal charges that used to apply only to State-owned employees to personnel of private firms, ensuring the robust protection of the legitimate rights and interests of entrepreneurs. Increased punishments have been imposed for corrupt behavior, such as embezzlement and misappropriation of funds by those working for private companies, to ensure the healthy development of enterprises and to create a sound business environment for all market entities, including foreign investments. The Belt and Road Initiative was leveraged to promote clean business operations, as demonstrated by China hosting the thematic forum on “Clean Silk Road” during the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

Fourth, there is a deterrent effect. Most of the 45 high-ranking officials who were investigated had already retired from their posts, and the actions taken against them demonstrate that retirement does not enable officials to evade investigation into their past wrongdoings. Equally, great efforts were made to repatriate those corrupt individuals who absconded overseas. From January to November 2023, 1,278 individuals were repatriated back to China, including 140 Party members and government officials, and 48 individuals with “red notices”. Approximately 2.91 billion yuan was recovered in the process. The message is that once an official is corrupt, they will be pursued until the end of their life.

Fifth, the adoption of a proactive approach is notable. President Xi Jinping has highlighted that the best solution for combating corruption should be self-reform, achieved by strengthening the system for exercising comprehensive and strict governance of the Party, which consists of 98 million members. China’s top anti-graft official, Li Xi, secretary of the CCDI, recently urged for efforts to eradicate the breeding grounds and conditions for corruption. Li called on discipline inspection commissions and supervision agencies to enhance inspection and supervision, improve conduct, enforce discipline, and deepen the reform of the inspection and supervision system. The revised Regulations on the CPC Disciplinary Action were issued in December 2023 to strengthen the Party’s disciplinary measures.

Finally, and most importantly, demonstrating commitment from the top to combat corruption is crucial. The CPC is undoubtedly the most committed to tackling internal corruption, compared to the Japanese ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has suffered from corruption scandals repeatedly. The top political will, as demonstrated by Xi’s pledges in the recent third plenary session of the 20th CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has enabled China’s fight against corruption to maintain its intensity without turning back, relaxing, or showing any mercy to corrupt officials. The clear message is that the battle must be fought with resilience, perseverance, and unwavering political will.

Instead of abiding by the adage “Don’t wash your dirty linen in public”, the political will of the government to eradicate corruption at all levels is amply demonstrated through extensive publicity via national media channels, such as the new anti-corruption documentary Continued Efforts, Deepening Progress, which was aired during prime time on China Central Television (CCTV) on the first weekend of 2024. The documentary exposed the details of a dozen corruption cases investigated last year, including a provincial public security official accepting a total of 1.2 billion yuan, causing a stir on social media and catalyzing a change in social attitudes, especially within the culture of officialdom and the socialization of new generations. Corruption and bending the rules should no longer be acceptable practices.

It is, therefore, worth noting that the increased number of senior officials under investigation does not necessarily indicate a failure of China’s anti-corruption efforts. On the contrary, it signifies that the government’s determination to tackle corruption is unwavering. The deterrent effect of holding retired officials accountable for their past wrongdoings sends a strong message of zero tolerance on corruption.

Overall, China’s fight against corruption is a multifaceted and evolving process. While challenges remain, the Chinese government has implemented various strategies to address corruption effectively, including encouraging public reporting of corruption, enhancing professionalism, targeting specific sectors, cracking down on new forms of corruption, extending the scope of enforcement, and maintaining a deterrent effect. All these developments indicate the government’s belief that combating corruption can succeed only by involving all sectors of society.

We should share the success story of China’s fight against corruption worldwide. One golden opportunity for this is the forthcoming 8th ICAC Symposium, co-hosted by the ICAC and the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities, to be held in Hong Kong on May 22-24. Undoubtedly, the symposium will be a major event in the global anti-corruption community, attended by leaders of anti-corruption agencies and anti-graft experts worldwide.

The author is an honorary fellow of HKU Space and Hong Kong Metropolitan University. He is a retired deputy commissioner of the ICAC and an international anti-corruption consultant.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.