Monday, February 3, 2014

China beats us in the corruption game, but a new crackdown is on. What's it about?

Chinese media is full of reports about action being taken against corrupt officials. If it's any consolation, their punishment of the guilty and our non-punishment have the same effect: Corruption goes merrily on. New President Xi Jinping appears to be more serious about fighting corruption than his predecessors were. He is no crusader in the Arvind Kejriwal mould. Also, given the size of the country and the deep roots of corruption, his chances of success are as unpromising as Kejriwal's.

Historical circumstances gave a certain inevitability to the spread of corruption in China, as in India. In both countries, the generation that won independence looked upon corruption as something that was not good. That prudence vanished when Deng Hsiaoping opened the gates of market liberalisation with the slogan, "To be rich is glorious" -- and when Indira Gandhi's Emergency suspension of constitutional rights broke the moral foundations of governance, made worse by her proclamation that corruption was a universal phenomenon. It has been a free-for-all in both countries ever since.

That corruption is massive enough to eat up the soul of China's economic progress is not disputed. Every dirty trick we are familiar with in India is routine practice in China -- on a larger scale, if we can imagine such a thing. Teachers take bribe for giving admission to schools, doctors for performing surgery, judges for favouring litigants, journalists for writing stories. According to a Central Bank report, some 18,000 corrupt officials have fled China with US$ 120 billion with them. Among them was a railway official who stole $ 2.8 billion and scooted.

Headline-grabbing cases had surfaced even before Xi. Look at the stars who were punished for corruption in 2008: Former head of China's nuclear power agency, former Chairman of the state-owned oil company, former mayor of the industrial city of Shenzen, head of Beijing's capital airport (who was executed). But Xi has put under house arrest preparatory to more severe action a party official who was often considered mightier than the President -- Politburo member Zho Yongkang former boss of the country's powerful security setup. Action against a leader as formidable as Zho could lead to what China-watchers describe as a "political earthquake". Evidently Xi Jinping feels secure enough to face earthquakes. Within a year of becoming President, he has already concentrated in himself more power than any of his predecessors. There have been other Presidents who were simultaneously party general secretary and chief of the all-important Central Military Commission. But Xi is also head of a powerful newly created National Security Council and another committee in charge of economic planning and implementation. And don't forget, purges and punishments of party officials in China are often an extension of internal power struggles. Clearly Xi reigns supreme.

It is to China's credit, however, that in the midst of power struggles and corruption, it ensured that its economic and military growth was higher and faster than any other country's. This was achieved at a price -- environmental destruction, pollution, social unrest -- that democracies will find difficult to pay. Perhaps the leadership has recognised that the time has come to pay attention to problems it had ignored all these years.

This is where President Xi's campaign seems to have dimensions beyond just corruption. The way China progressed, provincial party leaders acquired muscle power strong enough to defy the centre. The case of the party boss of Chungqing, Bo Xilai, showed the centre's resoluteness in destroying such challenges. He was considered powerful enough for top leadership. But last October he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Such tough political action as well as badly needed changes in economic policies can be undertaken by the central leadership only if it buttresses its position with measures that invite public approbation. President Xi's affability and the popularity of his singer wife have made him a kind of people's President. The campaign against corruption will give that popularity a solid base. If he succeeds in at least preventing the further growth of corruption, he could well achieve a place in history.