Jason Lee / Files / Reuters

China's corruption crackdown incompatible with rule of law

Latest purges target elite politicians but ignore rampant grassroots corruption

July 30, 2014 6:00AM ET

Before his spectacular downfall in the spring of 2012, Bo Xilai was a rising star of China’s ruling Communist Party. As party secretary of the Chongqing municipality, he boldly engaged in ideological campaigns independent of anything directed from Beijing and orchestrated a massive purge of organized crime syndicates, many with alleged ties to his political opponents. Ever since Bo’s political demise — he received a life sentence last year for bribe taking and embezzlement, among other charges — salacious stories of official corruption and tales of ruthless crackdowns and purges have percolated through the Chinese and international media. After taking power, President Xi Jinping has gone so far as to place limits on cadres’ dining and entertainment habits, all the while touting a return to the Maoist ideal of the mass line, a doctrine that helped check corruption by lending ordinary citizens political support for denouncing officials’ bad behavior.

On the eve of Xi’s visit to South Korea earlier this month, a new round of high-profile purges was announced. This time, the targets included a terminally ill retired three-star general who was a Politburo member and vice chair of the party’s Central Military Commission as recently as 2012. Also among those singled out were a former governor of Hainan province, a top official in the Ministry of Public Security, a former deputy secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Central Committee and a high-level manager of PetroChina, the state-owned oil giant. On July 4, China Central Television (CCTV) reported that a number of lower-level officials were under suspicion for taking overseas “study tours” that amounted to publicly financed junkets. On July 11, a prominent CCTV journalist was detained on suspicion of corruption.

On Tuesday, the Party announced that it is formally investigating Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranking party member ever to face such scrutiny in the post-Mao era. A former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, minister of public security and party secretary of Sichuan province, Zhou also led the faction to which Bo and nearly all the subsequent high-level corruption targets have been tied. These developments are likely to shine an even brighter spotlight on the party’s internal — extralegal — mechanisms of criminal investigation and discipline.

But overreliance on the party rather than the legal system for investigation of corruption undermines any attempt to build a rule of law in China at the highest levels — and helps expose a different pathology of grass-roots corruption that amounts to a symbiosis of local governments and organized crime syndicates.

National vs. local realities

Nearly all the recent cases have been investigated and pursued by the party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission. Headed by Xi’s key ally and fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, this is an extralegal institution with vast powers to detain party members, seize assets and collect evidence using means and tactics well beyond those permitted under Chinese law.

Circumventing the legal system to investigate top leaders is a practical necessity in an environment where officials can resist the legal process relatively easily and police and prosecutors can themselves be corrupt. But doing so also impedes the system’s development into a more competent, impartial or independent apparatus. And it reinforces the long-held perception that the Communist Party and its leaders are effectively above the law, subject only to their internal controls. Furthermore, though five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee (including Wang) are due to retire at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, it is an open question whether they will go willingly, given the precedent they have set by prosecuting retired leaders and the number of enemies they have made in the past two years alone. Should they try to hold on to their posts, this could cause a serious political crisis.

While China’s local politics is sliding in the direction of a kind of gangsterism often observed in Southeast Asia, its elite politicians are increasingly operating outside a legal framework, undermining any genuine move toward the rule of law.

Yet a different crisis has been playing out at the local level for some time. Across much of rural China, weak local governments have been reliant for at least the past decade on land requisitions and sales to meet basic fiscal needs. This trend has fueled China’s property boom and housing bubble, but it has also caused significant and widespread social dislocation and unrest across much of the country. Hoping to ward off petitioning, protests or other collective action by villagers that could stand in their way as well as to keep costs down, many local officials in provinces from Jilin to Jiangsu have entered into bargains with organized crime syndicates to help keep the peace and ensure that revenues are not cut off.

Such a symbiosis of criminal gangs and local governments undermines any real attempt to place governance on stronger legal foundations. And it helps ensure that at least a certain kind of corruption is both endemic and entrenched at the local level, severely hindering any efforts (even those spearheaded by a massive central campaign) to ferret out wrongdoing or reduce malfeasance.

Political consequences

Xi’s motives for launching the current corruption crackdown are debatable; some observers laud them, while others see only superficial attempts at reform. But ultimately the real issue is whether these efforts can preserve an already fragile equilibrium. China’s meld of political convention and legal regulation has helped provide the country with political stability and high economic growth for more than two decades. Under this system, top leaders serve two consecutive five-year terms, retired officials are generally immune from investigation and prosecution, and a maturing legal system ensures predictability and promotes efficient economic transactions. Despite its relative success to date, the framework is still quite vulnerable.

In the worst case, a political crisis brought on or hastened by Xi’s campaign could threaten the integrity of the regime should things not proceed as planned at the 19th Party Congress. But even in less drastic scenarios, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to reverse two trends visible to close observers. One is that local politics is sliding in the direction of a kind of gangsterism often observed in Southeast Asia. The other is that elite politicians are increasingly operating outside a legal framework, undermining any genuine move toward the rule of law.

From the outside, China’s politics appears unified, stable and hierarchical, and its continued economic development can seem inevitable. Xi’s anti-corruption drive might rightly be viewed as an overdue corrective to one of China’s most serious problems that can hopefully put the country back on the right track. But a more perceptive interpretation would question whether the party is capable of true reform — and whether top-level machinations will be able to slow or reverse continuing institutional weakness and political decay at the local level. If not, China’s political stability and economic prospects may be substantially less certain.

William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is the author of “The Chinese Worker After Socialism” and a co-editor of “Laid-Off Workers in a Workers’ State: Unemployment With Chinese Characteristics.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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