Beijing’s recent disclosure that at least ten directors of public security (police) bureaus at or above county level were found to have close connections with local criminal syndicates highlights concern that a fusion of political and criminal elements is undermining popular support for the Communist Party. The president of China’s supreme court has warned that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is “one step away from being plagued by crimes similar to those of the Italian mafia.” And a noted professor of economics estimates that corruption lowers the country’s gross domestic product by between 13 and 17 percent each year. Fifteen to 20 percent of the funds for any given project are diverted away from the purpose for which they are intended. Worse, according to the academic, is that crime pays. There is only a 6.6 percent chance that corrupt officials will be prosecuted.
The political criminal nexus extends far above, and below, county level. Often the sons and daughters of central government leaders, the so-called “princelings” are involved. Although the media do not mention the escapades of the children of leaders at the very top of the elite, a surprising number of Chinese are aware that Jian Mianheng, son of Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, is a major investor in several large-scale businesses despite the few hundred dollars a month salary his formal position pays. And in January, a former subordinate of Li Peng, the second most powerful individual in the PRC hierarchy, was charged with corruption. The subordinate was an official of the State Power Corporation, where two of Li’s children are also employed and in the service of which they have amassed fortunes. In December, China’s justice minister was removed for irregularities in his conduct in office. At lower levels, gangs pay government inspectors to approve “bean curd dregs” projects characterized by shoddy workmanship and substandard materials. Nearly new bridges have collapsed, dams burst and buildings fallen in on their luckless inhabitants. At borders with foreign countries, customs agents waive through the passage of prohibited items, including drugs and armaments—for the right price.
Party and government have responded with a “Strike Hard” campaign, its avowed aim being the extermination of both criminals and the officials who protect them. Other methods, some of them quite creative, have been developed as well. One initiative involved developing a profile of officials considered most susceptible to corruption, in order to help investigators narrow their search for the guilty. The result, dubbed the “39-year-old syndrome,” refers to cadres who see little possibility of promotion while feeling threatened from below by promising younger colleagues. Zhejiang province, where authorities estimated that about 40 percent of graft scandals involve family members of officials urging them to take bribes, began a “wife-educating campaign.” Cadres’ wives were mobilized to listen to lectures on the value of probity, watch anticorruption films and visit jailed corrupt officials to preview what life would be like should their husbands be similarly incarcerated. On the basis of unspecified criteria, nine women were honored with the title “Clean and Honest Wife.” Three other provinces were reported to have borrowed the idea. In Hebei, a local cartoonist designed a deck of cards depicting fifty-two different forms of graft and official misconduct. The king of spades, for example, depicts a half-naked official with a pretty young woman. The procuratorate liked the idea so much that they provided the cartoonist with a subsidy to get the cards commercially printed. In an ironic aside, the decks became favorites of poker players who are suspected of money laundering. And, in contravention of intellectual property rights laws, counterfeited decks circulate as well.
Punishment remains the major weapon for dealing with official corruption. According to Amnesty International, the PRC’s own statistics, which are believed to err on the low side, indicate that it executed more people in the three months between April and June than the rest of the world executed in the last three years. Though not all of these were involved in official corruption, the Strike Hard campaign has accounted for a significant jump in the numbers. Officials at the very top appear to be shielded—one official explains that “the practice of the party is to cover up for its top leaders for the sake of stability.” Central government ministers and provincial party and government leaders are, however, considered fair game: A number of them have been prosecuted in well-publicized trials. Although the presumption is that the punishment of these individuals will warn others away from participating in criminal activities, such does not seem to have been the case. When former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong received a sixteen-year sentence, the reaction of many capital residents was cynicism. Some observed that Chen was no more guilty than other officials, it was simply that Jiang Zemin regarded him as a potential rival to be disposed of. Others noted that those convicted of bribes involving much less money had been sentenced to death.
Major trials are televised and watched with much interest, though often, it would seem, for their entertainment value rather than because they serve as a deterrent to would-be lawbreakers. The lurid exposes that accompany them risk making some of the miscreants into cult heroes. Accused smuggling webmaster Lai Changxing built a six-story pleasure palace named the Red Chamber to entertain his official guests. He has explained that the color was chosen because it is the color of communism. The chamber, equipped with karaoke facilities, saunas, luxuriously appointed bedrooms, beautiful women and an acclaimed chef imported from Hong Kong, became an instant local tourist attraction and there are now plans to turn the building into a museum. Some of the accused have pleaded, with justification, that they did not think they were breaking rules. Lai Changxing, now fighting for asylum in Canada, maintains that he is the innocent victim of political infighting within the top leadership, and that testimony against him was obtained after witnesses were beaten. Given China’s murky legal climate, the rampant local protectionism of its courts and the not uncommon use of torture, Lai’s defense is plausible, even if not necessarily true.
Many entrepreneurs, Lai included, have stated that while they would prefer not to have to bribe officials, it is the only way to move business transactions forward. Officials, who receive modest fixed salaries that are unrelated to their performance on the job, are able to rationalize that taking illegal or semi-legal payments is the only way to provide their families with the comforts of life already enjoyed by entrepreneurs. For some years, Chinese academics have advocated adoption of the Singapore model, under which civil servants receive handsome salaries but are punished harshly for corruption. While attractive in theory, to implement the Singapore model in the PRC would require a huge increase in state revenues that the budget, already in deficit, simply cannot sustain. The sort of thoroughgoing economic restructuring that would return more revenue to the central treasury is politically impossible. And, given the institutionalization of official corruption, there is no guarantee that better paid civil servants will be more honest.
The recent overthrow of corruption-ridden administrations in Indonesia and the Philippines have provided China’s leaders with fresh reminders of the consequences of failure to cope with this growing problem. But solutions remain elusive.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami.