The men of Qi presented the government of Lu with a troupe of singing girls. Ji Huanzi accepted them and for three days failed to appear at court. Confucius left the state. Analects
Everywhere, since ancient times, citizens have feared government corruption for, unlike war and civil fraud, corrupt policies can cripple nations for centuries.
Corruption–whether nepotistic, pecuniary, blatant or discreet, major or minor–has been subverting governments since government was invented. Roman politicians were scandalously corrupt, Christianity failed to improve them, and their legacy of official impunity, bribery, influence peddling, patronage, nepotism and cronyism, electoral fraud, embezzlement, kickbacks, unholy alliances, and involvement with organized crime afflicts us o strongly today that we have become either numb to it or fallen into despair.
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No society has suffered more grievously from, nor waged a more protracted war against, official corruption than the Chinese. Yet nor has any society enjoyed more honest governments and competent officials than they. Nor does anyone celebrate their honest officials more than they.
On May 5, 278 BC, after the King of Chu ignored his warnings about official corruption, State Minister Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River in protest and, ever since, Dragon Boats renew their search for his body.
Great Confucians like the The Hongwu Emperor fought corruption tirelessly:
Had I thoroughly eradicated corrupt officials in addition to those already imprisoned I would have been dealing with two thousand men from just two prefectures, men with no useful occupation who used my prestige to oppress people. No-one outside government knew how wicked they were, so everyone said my punishments were harsh, for they saw only the severity of the law and didn’t know that these villains had used the government’s good name to engage in evil practices. In the morning I punished a few and, by evening, others had committed the same crimes. I punished those in the evening and next morning there were more violations!
Although the corpses of the first had not been removed others were already lined up to follow in their path, day and night! The harsher the punishment, the more violations.
I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t rest. If I was lenient the law became ineffectual, order deteriorated, people thought me weak and engaged in still more evil practices. If I punished them, others regarded me as a tyrant. How could anyone lead a peaceful life in such circumstances? Really, my situation was dreadful.
To their credit, the Confucians fought corruption more effectively than the Romans, partly because they retained the right to withdraw the Mandate of Heaven (a right now enshrined in the PRC Constitution).
Many governments met grisly ends for failing to honor the Four Principles–propriety, justice, honesty, and honor–or lacking the Eight Virtues: loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, love, integrity, righteousness, harmony and peace.
From earliest days, officials transferred to provinces were forbidden to bring their parents lest their needs conflict with the Emperor’s. They were rotated every three years and, after each rotation, their successors were encouraged to report discrepancies, lest they be blamed for them. Palace officials were regularly moved between departments. The seriously corrupt were simply strangled and their families sold into slavery.
Every Chinese, from humble farmers to eminent politicians, knows this history and understands that the most effective way to prevent corruption is what Confucius called “Getting proper men”. Begin by weeding out the morally unfit and promoting honest men to leadership positions.
Many still living today saw how a century of chaos so devastated public morality that Mao could observe during a 1950 anti-corruption drive, “Today, you can buy a branch secretary for a few packs of cigarettes, not to mention marrying a daughter to him.” Mao’s slogan, “The masses have sharp eyes,” encouraged people to report wrongdoing and corruption fell dramatically. His insistence on merely shaming corrupt officials worked because, says Sydney Rittenberg. “Nobody locked their doors. The banks–there was a local bank branch on many, many corners–the door was wide open, the currency was stacked up on the table in plain sight of the door, there were no guards and they never had a bank robbery, ever.”
Nevertheless, at the policy-making level, postwar China has been free of corruption though, during the forty-year Reform and Opening, lower level corruption flourished.
Anticipating this, says Yukon Huang,
The system countered the growth‐inhibiting aspects of corruption by setting investment and production targets that gave local officials incentives to promote expansion. It fostered a unity of purpose so that, even when corruption flourished, the collaborators still made growth the guiding principle of their actions. This was reinforced by competition between localities to meet targets and support productivity‐enhancing economic reforms. The competitive element helped curb waste and ensured a modicum of efficiency, despite the high degree of state intervention in commercial activities.
Sometimes though, as throughout Chinese history, things got out of hand.
Acting on a tipoff about smuggling, Beijing secretly sent detectives to Xiamen Port in 1999 but the smugglers, tipped off, set fire to the investigators’ hotel and killed them as they slept. On national television the next day, Premier Zhu Rongji declared war and ordered a hundred coffins, “Ninety-nine for the crooks and one for me.” Detectives from across the country converged on the city and what they found staggered them: four million tons of imported diesel fuel had bypassed customs in just two years. They tracked hundreds of suspects, locked escapees in a local hotel with armed guards on each floor, and spent three years unravelling a case so complex that the customs files alone would be higher than a ten-story building. The gang had bribed the vice-minister of Public Security, Li Jizhou, through his wife and daughter, and Li and thirteen others were sentenced to death, his wife to thirty months in prison and three hundred officials were tried for aiding or abetting the criminals. The ringleader, farmer-turned-smuggler Lai Changxing, fled to Canada, was extradited, and jailed for life in 2009.
Rapid growth solved many problems but a new cycle was presaged by a nepotism scandal.
In 1985, son of a Revolutionary Immortal (and Xi Jinping schoolmate), Bo Xilai, ignored his father’s pleas to stay out of politics, “You know nothing of the sufferings of ordinary people and just want to capitalize on my name.” Xilai cultivated a charismatic image, was named one of Time’s Most Influential People, rose rapidly to provincial governor and publicly campaigned for a cabinet position. Michael Wines wrote that, though he possessed prodigious charisma and deep intelligence, “He possessed a studied indifference to the wrecked lives that littered his path to power…Mr. Bo’s ruthlessness stood out.” Bo had even wiretapped President Hu With the help of Justice Minister Zhou Yongkang.
Despite internal resistance, Vice Premier Wu Yi, the nation’s highest woman official, demanded an open investigation and a 2012 trial revealed that Bo owned expensive properties around the world and that his wife had murdered a British agent. Next, with prosperity assured, Congress anointed the most honest, competent official of his generation, Xi Jinping, to succeed President Hu.
In its first year, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign saw ten thousand officials passed over for promotion for concealing information and one-hundred thirty-thousand demoted or disciplined for making false declarations. By 2016, prosecutors had charged sixty-three senior officials and ministers with corruption, released confessions from fifty-seven thousand Party members who made restitution and accepted demotions and seen Yunnan’s corrupt Party Secretary, Bai Enpei, sentenced to death.
By 2018, anti-corruption squads had investigated 1.3 million bureaucrats, filed a million court cases, issued one hundred thousand indictments, captured thousands of overseas fugitives and jailed or executed one-hundred twenty high-ranking officials–including five national leaders, twelve generals, and a dozen CEOs. After an industrial explosion in Tianjin killed one-hundred sixty-five people in 2019, the magistrate found that petty bribery had led to weak code enforcement, sentenced the responsible official to death, and jailed forty-nine of his colleagues.
Today, graft investigators’ unannounced inspections resemble Olympic athletes’ doping tests: one Anhui inspection team telephoned an official four times between 7:31-7:35 pm about his poverty alleviation efforts, but he was showering and, when he failed to answer, they reported him for obstruction. Happily, through social media, the public came to his defense and he was exonerated.
Bureaucrats–especially those with leadership ambitions–endure increasing scrutiny as they advance, says Zhao Bing Bing, “The selection criteria are: a person must have ‘both ability and moral integrity and the latter should be prioritized.’”
Knowing that that ten percent of their statements will be audited, even midlevel officials must report their assets and those of their parents, wives, children, children’s spouses and cousins, children from previous marriages, children born out of wedlock and foster children. They must report their income, savings, real estate, stock portfolios, insurance policies, unit trusts, bonds, assets in overseas accounts and, “Income shall include salary and various bonuses, allowances, subsidies, and payment you receive from lectures, writing, consultation, reviewing, painting and calligraphy.”
If they refuse to answer questions, collude with, or protect accomplices, they are detained immediately. Says a scion of a prominent family:
I am a Party Member in China and all my family are Party members. What I think of Xi is that the life is really changing after he came to power. A relative of mine works for the government as a vital governor in my city Chengdu (which is a big city like BeiJing or ShangHai), then all my family people are like in the hierarchy of privilege. We pay nothing when go out for dinner, the Party pays. We pay nothing for filling in oil, the Party pays. It seems like we don’t need to pay for anything with our salaries, cause either the Party pays, or someone will pay for us (who wants to flatter us). I smoke the best, I drink the best, sometimes I even drive without license when drunk, because I fear no one.
In past times, yes we did have privilege everywhere, I felt so arrogant to be superior to others that’s also true. But the problem is, there is a tradeoff. We drank quite a lot of alcohol to show respect to others, we had to accept bribes even we know it’s risky, cause we have to consider about our clan (like the interest of my boss). We had to do some many things we don’t want to do, that’s the rule of living in Party, care about the interest of Clan more than your own. That’s how we united. We have to fear a lot of threats from ordinary people, colleagues, and bosses. We cannot keep our own passports, Party keeps it in case of we flee.
But life changed after Xi came to power, he did real things on anti-corruption. No one dare to present gifts to governors and the abuse of public funds is strictly monitored. The Party took back the public cars from my family and even we have to pay for the parking fee now! But..my family and I are actually happy with this, we are thankful to President Xi. Cause he seems like dragging China to a healthier future. My relatives don’t need to go out for dinner with other governors as social intercourse daily, they don’t need to drink so much on the table. And they start to learn to pay for the bill by turns, cause the Party will no longer do this for them. They start to learn how to take bus or metro. That’s good, actually. People start to think about what kind of lifestyle is called ‘healthy,’ they are more like human now, no longer some conceited stupid with expanding power. That’s how our life changed after Xi came.
Senior ministers’ lives have become excruciatingly transparent. Their private activities are scrutinized and their children must adopt assumed names to avoid influence-seekers. One-on-one appointments are taken as evidence of impropriety, so their meetings must have third-party observers. Excessive, or poor quality government debts is prima facie evidence of corruption and automatically investigated. Senior officials are audited annually after retirement, remain responsible for the consequences of all their decisions until the day they die and, even then, clawback provisions apply.
Beijing publishes a monthly scoresheet. Citizens text tips and complaints to the Rules and Discipline Committee (founded in the Tang Dynasty) text #12388, post accusations and photographs of evidence on social media and request additional witnesses. Netizens scrutinizing a news photograph noticed a Shaanxi work safety boss grinning broadly as he assessed the twisted wreckage of a bus accident killed 36 people. They spotted his expensive timepiece and their tipoff sent Yang Dacai, Brother Watch, to jail for fourteen years for taking a million dollars in bribes.
Today, visitors burn incense at the shrines of great corruption fighters, official corruption still accounts for half of all Chinese dramas, and millions watch TV dramas about ‘Justice Bao’ Zheng, the incorruptible Prefect of the Capital in 1000 AD.
A popular TV series, ‘In the Name of People,’ depicts current-day intra-Party power struggles in the fictional city of Jingzhou. There a prosecutor and a handful of honest local officials help laid-off workers protest a corrupt land deal, foil bureaucrats sabotaging an arrest warrant, and stop fake police bulldozing honest citizens’ homes. The show’s writers say they have no shortage of material.
The anti-corruption campaign has been immensely popular and, by any measure, successful. Most Chinese say their government runs the country for everyone’s benefit and ninety-three percent said they trust it–figures that rival Switzerland’s and Finland’s.
But that is just a prelude to what will probably be Xi’s most memorable contribution to Chinese history: the creation of the National Supervision Commission.
Until 2018, anti-corruption work was shared by the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and the Ministry of Supervision, which supervised civil servants.
Xi’s new Commission subsumes their functions into an independent, fourth arm of government that ranks with the Supreme Court. As the most powerful such agency on earth, it employs legislation, digital technology (including face recognition and AI), the sharp eyes of the people, and great investigative powers. With the goal of making corruption impossible, it centralizes all anti-corruption processes and exercises authority over all civil servants within and outside the Party, the government, the People’s Congresses, the local supervisory commissions, the people’s courts and procuracy, the People’s Congresses, the eight democratic parties, federations of industry and commerce, and everyone who works in, or consults for, organizations managing public affairs.
With extensive powers to interrogate, search, wiretap, detain and freeze suspects’ assets, its writ extends to managers of state owned enterprises, state educational, scientific, research, cultural, health care, sports, and similar agencies, think tanks, village and urban residents committees, and ‘all other personnel who perform public duties’ and oversees provincial, city, and county level anti-corruption agencies.
Congress appoints the Commission’s senior staff and Yang Xiaodu, its first director was, like Xi, a sent-down youth who performed manual labour in Anhui province during the Cultural Revolution. Staff need not be Party members but they can never work in another arm of government for the rest of their lives. The Commission is a political, not administrative body, and is exempt from the extensive procedural and substantive constraints on administrative organs like the police. Though required to pay compensation ‘in accordance with law’ for infringing people’s lawful rights and interests, it does not provide a right of further recourse through the courts, though it permits targets to appeal to higher-level organs for re-examination of the Commission’s decisions and to challenge unlawful, prolonged detention.
If the Commission succeeds, grateful citizens will credit Confucius’ unwillingness to tolerate corruption, and Xi Jinping for creating the most powerful corruption-fighting agency in history. Looking back only ten years ago to Xi’s elevation, it is difficult to believe that corruption in China already rivals Singapore’s.
 Qu Yuan, 340-278 BC, was a Chu kingdom official and government minister who wrote some of the greatest poetry in Chinese history.
 From Huáng-Míng Zǔxùn (Instructions of the Ancestor of the August Ming), admonitions left to his descendants by the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644).
 An old friend of the party assesses China’s new leaders. Rob Schmitz. Marketplace. November 19, 2012
 Yukon Huang was the World Bank’s Director for China. The Diplomat
 China’s Meritocratic Examinations and the Ideal of Virtuous Talents. Xiao, H., & Li, C. (2013). In D. Bell & C. Li (Eds.), The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective: Cambridge University Press.
 Daniel Bell and Zhao Bing Bing, The China Model.
 The same wording as the Chief Censor used in the Tang Dynasty.
 The National Supervision Commission was formed at the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress in 2018 and absorbed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China.
*Corruption in Eighteenth-Century China. Nancy E. Park. The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 56, no. 4, 1997.
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