By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
China’s current campaign against corruption, which has targeted very high-level officials, demonstrates both the extent of the corruption in China and the Party-state’s failure to prevent its spread.
The Party has tough choices ahead: It clearly recognizes the danger corruption poses to its own mandate to rule, but meaningful reform would weaken the very power that the Party seeks to strengthen.
The two most prominent examples in the campaign are a series of high-profile detentions and arrests in the oil industry involving people close to former security czar Zhou Yongkang, and the recent prosecution on corruption charges of Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, former chief of the People’s Liberation Army Logistics Department.
Zhou Yongkong had been head of the China National Petroleum Corporation and then Minister of Public Security before he was put in charge of the police, courts and prosecutors as a member of the party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee. At the same time he also presided over a personal network that amassed enormous gains from many government ventures.
Zhou has not been publicly accused of any wrongdoing, but a Wall Street Journal investigation reports that his son, Zhou Bin, and other family members and friends “were involved in deals for companies in areas where the senior Mr. Zhou had clout, and which public documents indicate were worth tens of millions of dollars or more.”
Lt. Gen. Gu, who exercised extensive power over how the army uses resources, is accused of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power that enabled him to construct what one foreign media report described as a “a vast land development racket [that] enabled him and his family to amass dozens of expensive residences, including places where investigators found stockpiles of high-end liquor, gold bullion and cash.”
Economic reform and corruption have progressed together. The continued involvement of the Party-state in the economy has opened abundant opportunities for corruption by Party members and their families. Many scholarly articles and books as well as media reports demonstrate its extent. As Harvard’s Tony Saich put it in his 2011 book “Governance and Politics of China”: The Party has often publicized major corruption cases widely as a way to prove that it is serious about cracking down on graft. Although “major cases” may be “spectacular,” Saich notes, “ordinary citizens are more concerned about the everyday small corruption that makes their life complicated.” A recent book by two other scholars, Damien Ma and William Adams, states that “the rise of internal corruption [is] a central concern of the average Chinese, affecting everything from social welfare provisions to sustaining a fair education system.”
Although corruption endangers the stability and legitimacy of the Party-state, legal institutions are largely distant from dealing with it. In theory, officials may be punished by a variety of institutions:
• Ordinary criminal law, which applies to all citizens except deputies to the National People’s Congress;
• The Ministry of Supervision, which has authority to punish officials who violate laws specifically applicable to the government and Party; and
• An internal organization within the Party, the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission (CDIC), which monitors abuses and violations of Party discipline.
In practice, the Party has the power to refer a case to the courts, and, after this initial decision, is able to influence decisively the outcome of State prosecution and trial. As summarized by one legal scholar, ”the Party countenances prosecution only of members suspected of especially serious or notorious crimes…that cry out for punishment heavier than mere internal Party discipline, or in which the Party wishes to set a public example.”
How can this practice be changed? Chinese scholars and Western specialists on China alike have argued repeatedly that China needs an impartial legal system to adjudicate cases involving charges of corruption. “[W]hen opportunities for corrupt practices are accessible, their curtailment depends on a rule of law that is overseen by an independent and uncorrupted judiciary,” Charles Wolf, a distinguished scholar at both the RAND Corporation and the Hoover Institutions, recently wrote. “These institutions are yet to be developed in China.”
Some of China’s top leaders have said as much themselves. According to an account from longtime China watcher David Lampton, former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji told a U.S. Congressional delegation in 2007 that “[t]he fight against corruption is a long-term task and still a serious task; [in part the] reason is that there is no full-fledged legal system.”
Incremental reforms have been changing the legal system slowly and unevenly, but corruption has been untouched by institutional reform for decades. If the leadership is serious about punishing and deterring corruption they must undertake major legal reform—which would involve political reform. Primary responsibility for investigating and punishing corruption should be transferred to legal institutions—the Procuracy and the courts—with instructions to those organizations and the Party alike to strictly implement the rule of law.
In 1999 the Chinese Constitution was amended to include the sentence “The People’s Republic of China practices ruling the country in accordance with the law and building a socialist country of law.” This principle did not mean that the Party would no longer use law instrumentally to reflect Party policy. It does, however, provide legal and broad ideological authority to reform the institutions that punish corruption. The Party has the mandate to use the law, but will it?