China's crackdown against corruption: Lessons for India
This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on August 24, 2020 and can be accessed here
“Standing there was not some Emperor showing us his “new clothes,” but a clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor. Even though he was clutching some rags in an attempt to cover up the fact he wasn’t wearing any clothes, he couldn’t cover up his ambition to be emperor, and his ambition to destroy whoever might want to stop him.”
This excerpt from an essay that Ren Zhiqing wrote in March this year is about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) failure to deal with the coronavirus. A few days later, he disappeared. In June, he was expelled from the Communist Party. He then resurfaced in the news last week, when the Chinese government announced that he was being imprisoned for 18 years and fined 4.2 million yuan on corruption charges.
Ren Zhiqing is not new to scandals. The property mogul had 38 million followers on Sina Weibo before the Chinese government suspended his account in 2016 for ‘illegal information.’ Ren Zhiqing has been nicknamed “the cannon” because of his outspokenness, but his privilege comes from his background. Like Xi Jinping, he was a “princeling” as both his parents served in high CCP posts. During China’s infrastructure boom, he built his real-estate empire and became the President of a state-owned real estate company, the Beijing Huayuan Group. But even this privilege could not save him from the growing crackdown against dissenting voices in China.
Corruption is indeed a significant problem for the CCP. India and China score identically on the global corruption perception index. However, scholars like Yuen Yuen Ang point out that corruption in the two countries is very different. In India, much of the corruption happens at lower levels where greasing palms and petty bribes are necessary. But in China, the problem is at much higher levels where bureaucrats hold favours, privileges, and exclusive access in their grasp.
When Xi Jinping came into power, he vowed to end corruption and target both the “tigers, the flies and the foxes,” referring to higher and lower officials, as well as those outside the country. Since 2012, approximately 30 lakh officialshave been implicated in the anti-corruption movement, which has focused on the judiciary, finance sector, law enforcement, among others. What is surprising is that the anti-corruption campaign has sustained through the last eight years, unlike earlier movements that petered out. However, the movement has also become the vehicle by which critics and opponents have been silenced. Earlier this year, a law professor at Tsinghua University and a teacher at the Central Party School of the CCP also faced fire after criticising the Party.
However, despite these numbers, we do not know if these efforts are significant. Elizabeth Economy, in her book The Third Revolution, argues that the anti-corruption movement does not necessarily legitimise the CCP, “The more the Party focuses its attention and resources on the challenge, the greater the concern of the Chinese people. Besides, removing corrupt high-level officials, while popular in the short run, does little to address the real issue for many in China, which is improving the lives of the poor by tackling issues such as price levels, wealth distribution, and educational opportunities.”
This is a lesson that the Indian government would do well to remember – cracking down on dissenters doesn’t remove the dissent, nor does it deal with structural problems. It only buys time for the people in charge.