By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
As part of our ongoing series of insight and analysis from leading experts in their respective fields, Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, discusses the implications of the massive corruption trials currently under way in Chongqing. Mr. Lubman teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).
The dramatic arrests and trials in Chongqing of officials high and low and their gangster accomplices for corruption on a massive scale raise troubling questions about both China’s governance and the future of its legal institutions.
Major corruption scandals are not new: High-ranking officials have been punished before, but what makes this case in China’s largest city so remarkable is its size and implications. The chief of the city’s Municipal Justice Bureau (formerly the city’s deputy chief of police) has been arrested, along with numerous Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, high and mid-ranking police officers, rich businessmen, and members of criminal gangs. Arrests of wealthy businesspersons for being in cahoots with bureaucrats is no novelty, but the multi-million dollar scale of the many illegal casinos in Chongqing run by the sister-in-law of the Judicial Bureau chief is more brazen. It is the extent of the links among bureaucrats, businesses and gangsters involved in this case that merits special attention.
With economic reform, new classes of technocrats and entrepreneurs have gained wealth and influence. In recent years, the CCP, concerned that autonomous sources of economic power could weaken Party control, began looking to the rising social classes for needed talent that would help maintain and strengthen Party leadership. Entrepreneurs were admitted into the CCP in 2001, and the Constitution was amended in 2004 to recognize entrepreneurs as “builders of the socialist cause” along with “socialist working people.”
For the moment, the rise of a new middle and upper class has not threatened CCP control because Chinese entrepreneurs seem for the most part to have been coopted, although they are protective of their property rights. Their rights-consciousness could someday extend to concern over personal rights, especially if it grows in other sectors of Chinese society, but such assertiveness has not appeared.
The CCP has deliberately fostered the creation of a corporatist state, marked by close ties between business—business associations as well as private enterprises—and Party-state organizations. This is particularly evident at local levels. In Chongqing, when local residents refused to vacate their homes which were sought by a real estate developer, they were forced to travel in a government-owned bus and left in the countryside; by the time they returned, they discovered that their homes had been destroyed. This incident illustrates the close cooperation between local governments and developers in illegal takings of property that is a frequent problem in some cities and an even greater in the Chinese countryside.
There is a related lesson to be drawn from a Western press account that some of the Chongqing residents whose homes were destroyed during their involuntary bus ride gathered outside the courthouse at which one wealthy businessman was being tried for corruption. [Source: “Chinese Trial Reveals Vast Web of Corruption,” The New York Times, November 3, 2009, available here]. They had no legal remedies for their mistreatment. Their plight sadly illustrates the weakness of Chinese legal institutions in the face of the corrupt officials and criminals who can be arrayed on the side of businesses.
There has been some publicity in recent years about the triads — mafia-type gangs — but their prominence in the Chongqing scandals raises the specter of more widespread organized criminality whose extent Beijing has so far been unwilling to admit. Some gangs are housed in legitimate businesses, strengthening the links among business, crime and corruption. Tight links among gangs, business and officialdom are ominous threats not only to legal institutions, but to the development of civil society.
In addition to the problems of illegality and corruption, the trials may suggest that the Party-state’s offensive against corruption, even when gangster-related, is episodic rather than sustained. The Chongqing CCP Secretary, Bo Xilai, has garnered a great deal of publicity as the guiding force behind the current crackdown. He is the son of a well-known economic planner and a member of the CCP’s Politburo who arrived in Chongqing in November 2007 to take up his current position. But if the corruption and gangster networks were as extensive as they are revealed to have been, why did it take a year and a half for Mr Bo to act? He is reported to have said that action against the triads had to be taken because they had grown so powerful, but that only reinforces the “well-entrenched practice among cadres to treat crime syndicates with kid gloves,” as veteran China watcher Willy Lam noted recently. [Source:“Chongqing’s Mafias Expose Grave Woes in China’s Legal Apparatus,” China Brief, November 4, 2009, available here].
The issues noted here are tangled, and there is no theoretical approach to sort them out. The Chongqing trials are a signal of the ferment of the social change that is roiling Chinese society as it becomes more affluent, and shows no sign of ebbing in the near future.