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Fight Graft and Carry On

Six years into China’s anti-graft drive, and with no end in sight, officials are turning themselves in en masse to avoid more serious punishment

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Since assuming power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a high-profile anti-corruption drive aimed at catching both “tigers and flies” – senior and junior officials – in an effort to sweep clean China’s officialdom where corruption had become the norm following decades of economic growth.  

Now, six years after the campaign kicked off, it is still in full swing. On May 19, the National Supervisory Commission, China’s top anti-corruption agency, established in 2016, announced that Liu Shiyu, former chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission is under investigation. In early May, it was revealed that another ministerial-level official, former Party secretary of Yunnan Province Qin Guangrong is under investigation. 

Admitting to Graft
Compared to the earlier stages of the anti-graft drive, a major difference now is that many fallen officials are said to have turned themselves in. In an article published on the website of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the top disciplinary body of the Communist Party of China (CPC), during the 18 months following the 19th Congress of the CPC held in late October, 2017, more than 5,000 Party members and officials have turned themselves in for breaking the law, while more than 27,000 turned themselves in for violating Party regulations.  
Both Liu and Qin are reported to have voluntarily surrendered themselves to law enforcement agencies. Mao Zhaohui, director of the Renmin University of China’s Center for Anti-Corruption and Clean Government, told NewsChina that since the central leadership has kept up the pressure in its anti-graft drive, which has penetrated deeper into officialdom, turning oneself in to anti-corruption agencies has become the norm, and it will remain so in the near future.  Since the anti-graft drive was launched in late 2013, the first senior official reported to have voluntarily surrendered was Tong Mingqian, former deputy chairman of the provincial People’s Political Consultative Conference of Hunan Province, who surrendered himself in December 2013.  

Tong was surely not the first senior official to have turned himself in during the course of the campaign, but in the early stages of the anti-graft drive, the CCDI, who maintained routine briefings about senior officials that were under investigation, made no distinction between those who turned themselves in and those did not.  

Change of Strategy
The approach appears to have changed in mid-2018, as the CCDI started to specify whether fallen officials had voluntarily turned themselves in. Details of the first case were released on July 31, when the CCDI said in a routine briefing published on its website that Ai Wenli, former deputy chairman of the provincial People’s Political Consultative Conference of Hebei Province, had surrendered to anti-corruption authorities.  

In August 2018, the CCDI announced five more cases of officials in five provinces who surrendered themselves. It is not just central anti-corruption agencies that have reported a surge in the number of officials who voluntarily surrendered, some provincial and regional agencies have also seen a similar trend. In Hunan Province, for example, anti-corruption agencies reported that 108 officials gave themselves up in 2018. By comparison, the agency reported the number of officials giving themselves up was in the single-digits in 2017.  

Wang Minggao, an expert with the Hunan Collaborative Innovation Center of Anti-corruption, who has followed China’s anti-corruption efforts for more than two decades, told NewsChina that the surge in the number of those voluntarily surrendering in the past year stems not just from a sudden enlightened conscience on the part of the corrupt official, but also because the prolonged anti-corruption drive in the past six years has started to shape the perception, expectations and preferences of officials.  

“On one side, the central leadership has now made it clear that the anti-graft drive will be around for a long time, dashing any hope that it will be a short-term campaign as was the practice in the past,” Wang said. “On the other hand, policies and practices have offered incentives for corrupt officials to turn themselves in, especially when their associates have fallen under investigation.” 

There is no mechanism for plea bargaining under China’s legal system, but once convicted, those who surrender themselves to the law and plead guilty have legal grounds to ask for a lesser punishment. Ai Wenli, for example, was convicted in April 2019 for taking bribes of 64.8 million yuan (US$9.4m) and received a sentence of eight years in prison, which was seen as a lesser punishment compared to earlier similar cases.  

Supervisory Branch
According to Mao Zhaohui, another reason behind the recent trend lies in the increased efficiency and effectiveness of the anti-corruption agencies in cracking down on cases. Following the 19th Congress of the CPC in late 2017, China merged all levels of anti-corruption authorities to establish a national supervisory system to reform and streamline the system. At the central level, the National Supervisory Commission was set up alongside provincial branches. 

The new agency was granted an independent status from the administrative and judicial branches of China’s political establishment. Mao said that the new anti-corruption agency, along with its new powers, has had a major psychological impact on officialdom. In some cases, it created a domino effect, so that when one official fell under investigation, many of those associated with that official would turn themselves in.  

According to a September 2018 report from the China Discipline and Inspection Daily, the official newspaper of the National Supervisory Commission, after one official in a highway management office in Xiangshan County in East China’s Zhejiang Province fell under investigation, seven other officials chose to turn themselves in to the investigation team. The highway construction sector in particular had become a hotbed of corruption in the past years.  

For many, recent developments in the anti-graft drive show that it has penetrated all levels of government, indicating that it has achieved some of the campaign’s short-term goals, which is to establish a mechanism to deter and punish corrupt offenders. 

Wang Minggao told NewsChina that as the anti-corruption drive continues and law enforcement in this area becomes the norm, it will be time to focus on establishing a long-term anti-corruption system.  

“Authorities now need to push forward legislation regarding its anti-corruption practices to make the process more transparent,” Wang said.