Combating Corruption in China: Advances and Problems and Suppression of Advocates

November 20, 2013

Chinese leaders and citizens continue to express concern about corruption and President Xi Jinping has linked trust in the Chinese Communist Party to its ability to tackle corruption. Since China’s 18th Party Congress, Party and government authorities have initiated an anticorruption campaign, issued numerous measures to combat corruption, and continued to strengthen legal liabilities for transgressions. There are, however, limits to the most recent wave of anticorruption efforts, protections for whistleblowers remain insufficient, and authorities have cracked down on independent and citizen-led efforts to reduce corruption and promote transparency.

Corruption: Expressed Concern and Party Rule

In 2012 and 2013, Chinese leaders and citizens continued to voice concern over corruption (Xinhua, 18 November 12, 22 January 13; McClatchy News, 16 October 12). Some foreign and local business people reportedly believe China’s legal environment has deteriorated, and the international organization Transparency International ranks China 80th out of 176 in its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index and 27th  out of 28 in its latest Bribe Payers Index. (Age, 30 March 13; Transparency International, last visited, 11 November 13, China country summary). In one of his first speeches following his rise to the top position in the Chinese Communist Party (Party), President Xi Jinping linked the Party’s legitimacy to its success in dealing with corruption. He said, “facts have shown that if corruption becomes increasingly severe, it will ultimately lead to the ruin of the Party and the country!” (November 18 Xinhua article)

Anticorruption Measures and Campaign Motivations

Chinese leaders have stated their commitment to tackling corruption, and in 2012 and 2013, they launched an anticorruption campaign and issued various anticorruption measures, including the following:

  • August 2012—The Party Central Committee Politburo reportedly issued the “2013–2017 Work Plan to Establish and Improve Systems to Punish and Prevent Corruption” (Xinhua, 29 August 13). The full text of the plan reportedly has not been disclosed to the public (Hebei TV Net, 30 August 13). In December, the Politburo also passed “eight rules” requiring Politburo members to be the first cadres to improve their “work style,” including “rejecting extravagance, reducing bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk” (CPC Encyclopedia, China Daily, last visited 12 November 13, English translation; Xinhua, via People’s Daily, 5 December 12; and Washington Post, 5 December 12).
  • August and September 2012—The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate jointly issued two judicial interpretations; one about applying the law in handling criminal bribery cases (Supreme People’s Court, 21 August 12), and the other about handling criminal cases involving dereliction of duty (China Net via Legal China, 12 September 12; Caixin, 29 January 13).
  • November 2012—The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) issued trial provisions, which included a new standard for the crime of “especially serious bribery” and stipulated heavier sentences for this crime (SPP, 22 November 12; Oriental Outlook, 3 January 13).
  • January and March 2013—Xi Jinping reportedly vowed to go after both “tigers” and “flies,” i.e., both high- and low-level corrupt officials, (January 22 Xinhua article) and to “keep power reined within the cage of regulations” (Xinhua, 22 January 13 English); and Premier Li Keqiang reportedly indicated that anticorruption work would be included in local government, administrative departments, and leading cadre performance evaluations (New Beijing Times via Justice Net, 27 March 13).

For more information regarding authorities’ anticorruption measures in previous years, see Commission analysis 5 November 10 and 14 December 11.

Some observers have asserted, however, that some decisions about targets for corruption investigations may have been motivated by political reasons, such as bolstering the credentials of the new leaders and winning the public’s support, breaking up powerful interest groups, or purging political rivals. (Royal United Services Institute, 28 October 13; the Economist, 7 September 13).

Policy Improvements vs. Practical Progress

Some policy advancements can be measured. For example, authorities continue to strengthen legal liabilities stipulated in select newer policy instruments, as noted above. (For information on how authorities previously strengthened legal liabilities in measures applicable in “naked official” cases, i.e., officials or their relatives who flee overseas with ill-gotten gains, see Caijing Magazine, reprinted in Sina, 14 October 13.) While 2013 reports noted some practical progress, especially related to reductions in extravagant spending by officials and disclosure of general governmental budgetary revenues and expenditures, they also highlighted the frequent disconnect between policy and its implementation. (See for example, Tea Leaf Nation, 24 July 13; Southern Metropolis Daily, 30 September 12; and Radio Free Asia, 26 September 13.)  Based on preliminary data, one U.S. scholar asserts that Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign so far has not resulted in a significant increase in the number of authorities charged with corruption (China Policy Institute Blog, 15 November 13).

Insufficient Protections for Whistleblowers

Over time, while many citizens have voiced complaints about corruption, another ongoing challenge has been providing adequate protection to these whistleblowers. In 2010, the Legal Daily reported that citizen tips led to 70 percent or more of the cases of work-related offenses filed with procuratrate offices (Legal Daily, 21 June 10). Seventy percent of the people who filed tips with procuratorate offices, however, were reportedly subjected to various forms of retribution (Legal Daily, 17 June 10). Despite ongoing official assurances that whistleblowers will be protected, (PRC Administrative Supervision Law, Art. 6, 25 June 10; Reuters, 12 September 13) articles detailing reported acts of retribution against whistleblowers continue. Reports suggest that authorities have not provided whistleblowers sufficient legal protections or incentives (Southern Metropolis Daily, 9 July 13; Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report Blog, 5 November 13; New York University Journal of Law & Business, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 2011, p. 889–890; McDermott Will & Emery, 29 August 13).

Citizen Demand for Disclosure of Officials’ Assets and Crackdown on Advocates

Chinese citizens have advocated that Party and government officials disclose their assets. According to one article, a Chinese 2011 Blue Book of Rule of Law survey found that over 81 percent of respondents thought officials should disclose their assets (People’s Daily, via China News Service, 23 November 12). In December 2012, more than 2,000 people demonstrated in downtown Shanghai calling on officials to disclose their assets, as well as those of their family members (Radio Free Asia, 2 April 13).

In some cases authorities detained or arrested advocates involved in independent, citizen-led efforts to reduce corruption or promote greater transparency of officials’ finances. A few representative cases follow:

  • May 2013. Beijing officials arrested advocates Hou Xin, Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng, and Ma Xinli on the charge of “unlawful assembly” for unfurling a banner with anticorruption slogans in a busy area.
  • May 2013. Beijing officials also arrested legal scholar Sun Hanhui and lawyer Ding Jiaxi, on the charge of “unlawful assembly” for collecting thousands of signatures for an open letter urging top officials to make public their family assets.
  • June 2013. Public security officials in Jiangxi province arrested rights advocates Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua on charges including “unlawful assembly,” for participating in demonstrations calling for disclosure of officials’ assets among other activities. The trial for the three advocates opened on October 28, 2013, but was postponed when the defendants released the lawyers from their contract in protest after the judge did not allow the lawyers to properly defend their clients.
  • August 2013. Beijing officials arrested law scholar and rights advocate Xu Zhiyong on the charge of “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place,” in connection to his anticorruption advocacy and calls for public disclosure of government officials’ assets, as well as his involvement in the “New Citizens’ Movement.” (See Commission analysis, 1 August 13).

For more information regarding corruption and accountability in China, see Section III—Institutions of Democratic Governance in the CECC 2013 Annual Report, pp. 142–145.