Recent high-level scandals in both countries demonstrate that graft in government is a universal problem - but China and its Asian neighbours have far fewer defences
The T-shirts on sale in Thailand proclaiming “same same, but different” take on new meaning when it comes to contrasting corruption – and how it is prosecuted – in Asia (or at least China) and the United States.
As Bob and Maureen McDonnell, the former Virginia governor and first lady, face years in prison due to a recent corruption conviction, one can understand if Chinese state media were to have a bit of fun at America’s expense. Yes, Virginia, there is an ethics clause.*
In recent months, Chinese consumers have seen US companies in China come under government criticism, if not outright attack, for food safety, price fixing and other unsavoury practices. The not-so subtle message to China’s citizens could well be: don’t go thinking foreign brands, products or behaviours are better than those of China.
That message now could well be expanded to the behaviour of government leaders, as senior officials in both China and the United States have been brought down by corruption charges. The ongoing anti-corruption drive might even be a factor in higher suicide rates among Chinese officials, the New York Times reports. Yet, critical differences also abound as contrasting approaches to fighting corruption underscore that China, for now, still remains more rule-by-party than rule-by-law.
In Virginia, the McDonnells’ conviction by a federal court for taking bribes derailed the career of a one-time governor and rising political star once touted as a presidential candidate.
The verdict stemmed from charges related to the former first couple’s helping a wealthy businessman, Jonnie Williams, in exchange for more than $165,000 (Bt5.3 million) in gifts and loans. The McDonnells 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 at national, provincial and municipal levels as well as in Chinese media and the military – is unfolding as Xi Jinping consolidates power and sets the tone for his leadership after becoming China’s president in March 2013.
In the parlance of the Chinese, the McDonnells would no doubt be tigers rather than flies. McDonnell is one of the most senior US elected officials brought down by corruption in recent years. But he joins at least eight other former governors, from both major US 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 US and Chinese efforts to police corruption: the role of an independent judiciary and of a free media. In trials, often widely and aggressively covered by journalists, US 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-graft campaign with more difficult political and systemic reforms. Otherwise, his efforts may well be perceived as little different from those of his predecessors, though the “tigers” could be bigger this time around.
In the past, anti-corruption campaigns in China have been used to conceal political struggles inside the ruling Communist Party. Frequent official announcements of corrupt officials being brought to “justice” have also been used by the Party to demonstrate its own achievements and at the same time limit the space for outside anti-corruption voices.
In 2013, China watchers were riveted by the largest political scandal to unfold in years, namely the downfall off Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing and potential future rival to Xi Jinping as national leader.
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 August 22, 2013 and ended just four days later. On September 22 he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison. On October 9, a Chinese court said it would hear Bo’s appeal, which it then rejected on October 25.
Bloomberg reported recently 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, China continues to do poorly. In 2013, China ranked only 80th out of some 177 territories reviewed. The United States ranked 19th. At the top are Denmark and New Zealand. At the bottom of the list are Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. Thailand sits in 102nd place.
In China today, anti-corruption 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 United States, media and 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 – even small girls named Virginia who might have once written to newspapers, or 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.
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 and elsewhere in Asia, if not the United States, that there are still some people above the law.
* “Is There a Santa Claus?” was the title of an editorial in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”, has become part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States.
Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.