China’s leaders focus on culture of corruption

BEIJING — Just days after China unveiled its new top leaders, one of the seven asked to meet with the nation’s foremost experts on corruption.

The experts arrived expecting to stick to the stale formula for such meetings, and they anticipated the Communist Party’s usual caution when it comes to talk of anything approaching self-criticism. So they were shocked when Wang Qishan, the top party official charged with tackling corruption, veered off-script.

Set aside your pre-written comments, Wang told those summoned to the Nov. 30 gathering, and say what you really want to say about China’s corruption problem. “Even those in charge of supervision needed to be supervised,” he told them, according to several present.

The meeting was the beginning of a month-long anti-corruption campaign that has surprised many in China. Every few days, state-run newspapers and independent bloggers have trumpeted the investigation or arrest of a new official. And accompanying the stories have been salacious details – millions in unexplained assets, luxury houses, mistresses galore and sex videos to match.

Even so, experts here remain doubtful that the flood of publicity will result in fundamental, long-lasting changes to China’s culture of corruption.

Instead, they say, the anti-corruption rhetoric from high-level party officials and the well-publicized arrests represent a calculated move by China’s new leaders to soften growing resentment, anger and disillusionment toward the ruling Communist Party.

But many have noted the contrast between recent official denouncements of misbehaving low- and mid-level officials and the tight lid of silence concerning all higher-level officials and their families.

The New York Times reported in October that the family of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion, a shocking figure even in a country where government corruption is rampant. That followed a Bloomberg News report in June that the extended family of Xi Jinping, China’s incoming president, had amassed $376 million.

Talk of reform is a tack that other Chinese leaders have taken in the past at the outset of their rule, historians note.

But these days, the biggest barrier to true reform, many believe, is simply the problem’s pervasive nature – with tentacles reaching into every sector of Chinese business, government and society.

Business deals, especially in industries dominated by state-run companies, often succeed or fail based on one’s coziness with government officials. Parents regularly ply principals and teachers with gift cards as they try to win admittance into the best public schools for their children and academic advantages within their classes. And fines across many sectors of society are often considered negotiable, based on the favor one has curried.

“It’s not enough to have this kind of anti-corruption storm,” said Ren Jianming, a longtime corruption researcher who attended the Nov. 30 meeting. “Only by establishing institutions or policies can you guarantee real change.”

Experts have proposed building such checks and balances into the political system, but there has been little appetite for that kind of move within the government.

Instead, the anti-corruption campaign has consisted of making examples out of low-level officials and has been largely driven by whistleblowing bloggers.

The most colorful cases have combined vast sums of ill-gotten wealth with a whiff of debauchery: a local police chief who kept a pair of sisters as his mistresses, giving them police jobs and a city-funded apartment; a local official taped having sex with an 18-year-old as part of an alleged blackmail scheme by a construction company; and an official given a suspended death sentence after accepting $7.5 million in bribes and keeping diaries chronicling his sexual encounters with 136 women.

But relying on bloggers to ferret out bribery is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery, analysts say. And much of the increased online activity can be explained by the fact that government censors are no longer blocking such postings or intimidating bloggers who criticize local leaders.

“You cannot depend on online netizens and their investigations into mistresses,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor and corruption researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “It can only be the beginning, not the whole story.”

Many experts have argued for a new policy requiring all officials — including top leaders — to disclose their family assets, something that party officials have long resisted.

At his meeting with the outside experts, Wang — whose new position on the Politburo Standing Committee makes him responsible for overseeing the disciplining of government officials within the party — called asset disclosure a “complex” and “sensitive” issue and seemed to indicate that it was not likely to happen in the near future, according to attendees.

The main and perhaps only glimmer of hope that Wang offered was an indirect indication that top leaders realize how critical addressing the corruption problem may be to the party’s survival.

Wang referred to a book he read years ago, describing another group of elites with lifestyles of privilege and excess, and he recommended that the experts pick up a copy: Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a treatise on French aristocracy and its grisly demise at the hands of an angry public during the French Revolution.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Ren, the corruption expert, after the meeting. “There is a feeling of crisis and urgency among the leaders. They know corruption has already penetrated to the core of the regime. They know how serious the problem has become.”

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