China rulers struggle with corruption culture

Chinese 100-yuan bank notes are pictured.

Story highlights

  • China's ruling party struggling to ensure basic standards of governance
  • New leader Xi Jinping has pledged to root out corruption.
  • Most experts caution that the party will not get far if it refuses outside scrutiny

China's lunar new year holiday is the busiest time of year for the Zhengzhou East long-distance bus station. But officials in Shuyuanjie village, the district that owns it, complain that every bus rolling out of the station is a reminder of the revenue lost through corruption.

Fan Jianhui, the local Communist party secretary, has seized control of the station to run as his private business and despite street protests and complaints by local officials, there has been no investigation into his activities.

The case illustrates the struggles of China's ruling party to ensure basic standards of governance even as its new leaders pledge to root out corruption.

Xi Jinping, the new party chief, said last month that the party must fight "tigers and flies at the same time", adding that no exception would be made in probing graft no matter who was involved.

Orders for cadres to cut down on extravagant banquets and adopt a more humble lifestyle have resonated with the public. The speedy investigation and suspension of some officials exposed for alleged corruption on the country's vibrant social media has raised expectations.

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But most experts caution that the party will not get far while it refuses outside scrutiny.

"Greater transparency, rule of law and democracy are the only truly effective ways of fighting corruption. The current anti-corruption campaign does not feature any of these. In this respect it is the same as previous campaigns and cannot be expected to be any more effective," says Yan Yiming, a lawyer in Shanghai who has campaigned for years for greater government transparency.

While the party has no intention of sharing power, its own experts say that structural changes are needed to make at least some progress in containing graft.

"The current campaign-style fight against corruption is not sustainable," says Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, a top training institution for cadres. He says there are too many separate institutions tasked with fighting graft under the party, the police and the judiciary, and many probes get stuck in this thicket.

Those complaining about corruption in Zhengzhou agree. Local officials have spent more than a year reporting Fan Jianhui to the party's internal corruption watchdog, to its department in charge of personnel issues, to the police and to the local prosecutor's office -- without any result.

"We haven't heard back from the party organs. The prosecutor's office sent us back to the police. The police said they had instructions from above that they should not mess with this case," says Fan Jianqiang, a village committee member who is leading the crusade. He is not related to the party secretary.

Fan Jianhui does not deny that he runs the station as his private business but says he is doing so under a contract signed in 1998. But a third-party audit commissioned by the plaintiffs estimates that the signature on the contract is no more than seven years old, indicating it was made when Fan Jianhui was head of the village committee. He was appointed party secretary after failing to get re-elected as village head in 2008.

The local economy relies heavily on the bus station, and Fan Jianqiang calculates the village could have collected Rmb43m ($6.9m) in net profit from the station between 2006 and 2012.

As a result, the villagers are determined to fight on. They have launched a civil lawsuit against the secretary, challenging the validity of his contract.

Such assertiveness is no exception. The Chinese public is speaking up against corruption, aided by Weibo, the microblogging internet site that resembles Twitter. Observers say Weibo has started functioning like the independent force for transparency that the Chinese system lacks.

"The government has not been proactive in increasing the use of democratic supervision to strengthen the fight against corruption. But overall transparency in society has been increased thanks to the internet, and that is being reflected in the anti-corruption campaign," says Mr Yan.

The party is looking for ways to utilise this force in the existing political system.

Prof Wang adds: "In the west, they achieve probity through the mutual supervision of the executive, legislative and judicial powers. Fighting corruption under one-party rule is more difficult.

"There are definitely things we can learn from other countries."

But even if that could be done, it would put the party in a dilemma: Full disclosure about the severity of the problem could destroy what is left of the party's reputation.

Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, says: "If you define corruption as discrepancy between salary and assets, then 99.95 per cent of officials, all through different ranks, are corrupt. So it's impossible to get rid of all of them."