Friday, Oct 31, 2014, 10:17 PM CST – China

Special Report

Corruption

Graft Breeds Graft

The gap between the investigation and prosecution of official corruption cases casts doubt on the government’s ability to bring the bad to book

An anti-corruption “wall of shame” in Guizhou, Guiyang Province Photo by CFP

Liu Jiakun prior to his detention Photo by CFP

Liu Jiayi, Liu Jiakun’s brother, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for taking bribes, 2007 Photo by CFP

Some of the gifts given to Wang Huaizhong as bribes, including fox furs and jade carvings, at a public auction Photo by CFP

Following Xi Jinping’s pledge in January to “fight tigers and swat flies” – meaning corrupt officials at all levels – a handful of high-profile prosecutions have indeed given a modicum of weight to his words. However, political scientists warn that the sheer extent of corruption in China continues to outpace all attempts at a crackdown.

Toxic Legacy

According to a recent study conducted by Professor Tian Guoliang, director of the Central Party School’s publishing house, the average “latency period” between a corrupt official’s first offense and their exposure has increased dramatically, from less than a year in the 1980s to an average of 4.2 years in the 1990s. The average is, according to Tian, currently 8.9 years.

Tian blames this discrepancy on the increasingly sophisticated methods by which officials can abuse their positions for material gain. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the rules were pretty simple – cash and services,” Tian told our reporter. “To crack a corruption case, you just needed to find and open an offending official’s safe, and all the money would be there.”

Nowadays, anti-corruption campaigners and investigators have revealed, few officials take cash bribes. Instead, they prefer stocks, discounted real estate holdings, free luxury cars, expensive “gifts” for their families or vouchers redeemable at luxury stores. Few of these items leave a paper trail, and even real estate holdings are rarely listed under an official’s name.

Repeated calls for officials to fully disclose their assets have led nowhere, even when those calls have come directly from the Party leadership. As a result, anti-corruption agencies have resorted to piecemeal measures to rein in official extravagance. For example, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection this year issued a decree that demanded all officials and Party cadres give up all business membership accounts acquired in an official capacity by June 20.

Professor Zhang Tao from Shenzhen University argues that, rather than the methods of corruption, it is precisely the ineffectual anti-corruption mechanisms within the Party and the government that are at fault. After reviewing the 35 cases of both provincial and ministerial-level officials prosecuted for corruption between 1987 and 2011, Zhang found that only four cases (11.4 percent) were exposed by the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission. 24 cases, or 68.6 percent of the total, were exposed only as a byproduct of other investigations, and five were the result of whistleblowing.  

According to data released in 2010 by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s intermediary legal authority responsible for approving cases for trial, 70 percent of corruption cases in recent years were exposed by whistleblowers and the media. “This means that China’s anti-corruption authorities play a very passive role when compared to other countries,” said Zhang Tao, adding that in countries with low levels of corruption, anti-corruption agencies typically take the lead in exposing officials.

Just as it is taking longer and longer to bring corrupt Chinese officials to justice, the quantities of material assets these officials are able to illegally acquire have increased exponentially since the 1980s. What is fueling public fury is that the sentences being handed out for corruption are also seemingly becoming lighter.

In 2002, Wang Huaizhong, former deputy governor of Anhui Province, and Cheng Kejie, former vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, were executed for embezzling public funds and taking bribes worth 9.97 million yuan (US$1.62m) and 41.1 million yuan (US$6.67m) respectively.

More recently, Cheng Tonghai, former general manager of PetroChina, was charged with illegally acquiring 196 million yuan (US$31.8m) through abuse of his position. This month, former railways minister Liu Zhijun was convicted of taking bribes of 65 million yuan (US$10.6m). Both men received a suspended death sentence – which in the case of officials is almost always commuted to a minimum 20 year prison sentence.

‘Promotion in Disgrace’

Many political scientists agree that the apparent impotence of China’s anti-corruption authorities is a direct result of their lack of independence. All anti-corruption organizations at various levels, right up to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, are subordinate to their relevant Party committees. In the end, Party chiefs have the final say on who is investigated, who is charged with corruption, who is ultimately convicted and the severity of their sentence. This creates a huge blind spot for anti-corruption investigators – essentially, any official under the protection of the Party committee is out-of-bounds.

“As a result, a Party chief can effectively decide on who to investigate, and who to let go,” said Professor Ren Jianming, a governance expert from Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

This flawed system also helps to make corruption self-sustaining. “A corrupt official tends to promote other corrupt officials on the understanding that if everyone is corrupt, then everyone is safe,” Ren told our reporter. “To promote a clean official is to sit yourself beside a ticking time bomb.”

The longer a corrupt official goes unpunished, according to Liu Jiulong, a doctoral student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, the more likely he or she is to promote corrupt underlings. Liu’s research has shown that corruption-tainted officials, rather than being prosecuted, are typically transferred to other posts at the same level or simply promoted out of hot water, a phenomenon he has termed “promotion in disgrace.”

Reviewing the career history of all 43 high-ranking corrupt officials named in his study, all of them exposed between 2002 and 2012, Liu found that 36 of them (84 percent) had been promoted after their first offense.

“When a corrupt official stays in the same place for a long time, a wide-covering and entangled web of corruption would take shape,” Liu told NewsChina.

A similar study by Professor Tian Guoliang spanning the period 1980 to 2013 showed that 63 percent of corrupt officials were promoted while engaging in corruption. Another study by Professor Zhang Tao covering the period 1987 to 2011 put the ratio at 67 percent. One disturbing feature becomes clear from these unrelated studies – the more recent a corruption case, the more likely it is that the official in question was promoted while engaging in corrupt activities. 

Professor Ren warns that the trickle-down effect of corruption means that this trend is very dangerous. Corruption at the highest levels can easily pollute an entire government department or ministry. This may explain the chain reaction that results when a high-ranking official is put under investigation for corruption, whereby large numbers of their colleagues are also implicated in rapid succession.

Following the high-profile fall last year of Politburo member Bo Xilai and his deputy Wang Lijun, deputy mayor of Chongqing Municipality, dozens of mid-ranking local officials were removed from their posts and indicted under corruption charges relating to the case.

More recently in Guangzhou, 81 officials in the city’s Baiyun district, including the district’s Party chief, governor and their major deputies were put under investigation, paralyzing the district government. 

According to Professor Ren, given that corruption is a fundamental part of the political culture in officialdom, no isolated institutional reform can engender significant and substantial changes. Various pilot projects aimed at checking the power of Party chiefs have been designed and implemented in various localities, but none have borne fruit simply because the political will does not exist. At the core of these projects were the introduction of competitive elections and democratic nominations – both anathema to those with the power to effect such sweeping changes to the political system.

“As unspoken rules become the only rules that really count, Party chiefs can always have their way,” Ren told our reporter. “Only an overhaul of the current system can ultimately resolve the problem.”

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