The prosecution and conviction of powerful former Chinese security chief, Zhou Yongkang, as well as of conspicuous generals and high Communist Party officials, marks a turning point as Beijing reinforces its most ambitious post-Maoist campaign to purify society and politics accepting international collaboration.
The internal dimension
Against the backdrop of several cases of corruption unveiled in the West, China’s ongoing anti-corruption drive has attracted international attention due to its magnitude and methodology, particularly in the last months and weeks.
China’s 3 years anti-corruption campaign seems to be reaching a turning point as Chairman Xi Jinping is stressing the importance of laws and regulations. On June 26 Xi declared that «We must make sure officials dare not be corrupt, can't be corrupt and don't want to be corrupt» (1). The occasion was a Politburo collective study session which clearly envisage three stages. In the first place, the current investigation, detention and prosecution of concrete individuals will not be interrupted. Furthermore, as a second stage, it will be followed by a legal reinforcement. The third stage is the most difficult: to prevent corruption by making it impossible. The challenge seems to imply altering China’s political culture, which is more complex than changing its institutions.
As the most conspicuous and recent case under current investigations, State media announcement of Zhou Yongkang’s sentence to life imprisonment, on June 11, came some days before the announcement of prosecution of retired general and former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Guo Boxiong, on June 23. Zhou, the most senior politician to be put on trial in more than thirty years, who controlled prosecutors and judges, the police, the paramilitary People's Armed Police, the civilian intelligence apparatus, with a budget comparable to the military’s, was convicted of bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets. He was the protector of disgraced and influential leader Bo Xilai, who in 2013 was found guilty of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.
The anti-corruption campaign introduces elements of both Confucianism and Maoism – a mixture not easily understood in the West, – including terminology such as «crackdown on corruption by eliminating tigers and flies together», being the tigers the powerful officials and the flies the ones at the local and grassroots levels.
The current drive encompasses government at central and local level, including state own enterprises, army and diplomacy. It is a comprehensive effort whose most recent yearly figures disclosed by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) show that in 2014 it undertook 53,085 investigations, disciplined 71,748 cadres and severely disciplined 23,646. It is the highest yearly figure since the campaign was launched in late 2012, which in total numbers shows 414,000 officials disciplined, and 201,600 prosecuted.
The international scenario
The international scenario, also called «foreign battlefields», could not be neglected since Beijing sees collaboration with other countries as a precondition in many cases for deter wrongdoers from fleeing China as the first shield, detaining suspects, bringing any runaway official abroad to justice, and recovering stolen assets.
Operation Fox Hunt, a police operation launched in July 2014, and Operation Skynet – a multi-agency initiative -, announced in March 2015, are both part of this new global approach. In Skynet, bodies like the Ministry of Public Security and the top Procuratorate, the Central Bank and the Organization Department of Communist Party of China Central Committee work coordinately.
In its international hunt for the top 100 corruption suspects – mostly former officials – authorities have recently disclosed that 87 have taken refuge in English speaking countries, including 40 in the US, 26 in Canada, 11 in New Zealand, 10 in Australia. Precisely because 40% of the 100 most wanted reside in the US – 150 in absolute figures – the head of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang Qishan, would visit Washington sometime this year to coordinate the chase in the US. Wang, a former vice governor of China Construction Bank, vice governor of the People’s Bank of China, and governor of China Construction Bank, managed the largest bankruptcy restructuring in China's history in 1998 and is respected in Washington.
In March, Wang Qishan declared to be ready to strengthen anti-corruption cooperation with Russia. Actually Beijing and Moscow have already established cooperative mechanisms at provincial level in order to combat transnational crime along their common frontiers. In Western Europe, Beijing has concluded negotiations on extradition or administrative judicial treaties with ten countries including Spain, France, Italy and Britain. Globally, as of November 2014, China had signed a total of 39 extradition treaties and 52 criminal judicial assistance treaties.
At multilateral level Beijing is also moving assertively. Last November the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member economies signed the Beijing Declaration on Anti-Corruption, mainly drafted by China, reaffirming the 2012 Vladivostok Declaration on Fighting Corruption and Ensuring Transparency. The US, Canada and Australia and more countries like them with no extradition treaties with Beijing so far also signed. Furthermore, currently Beijing is considering joining the anti-corruption panel of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Operation Fox Hunt led to detention and surrender of 680 overseas fugitivesives in the second half of 2014, and recovered 483 million U.S. dollars. Precisely last year, when I visited the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing (the second time in two years, as member of international delegations), 762 people suspected of criminality in taking advantage of their positions of power were brought back to China. In spite of the efforts the challenge is titanic if we consider that officially China admits that it saw an estimated $ 1.25 trillion leaving its borders illegally from 2003 through 2012.
Power and morality
As part of its modernization, China not only has reached the world’s largest economy status while managing the lifting up of almost 700 million people from serious poverty since 1981. It has also produced a generation of more millionaires than any other country, except the US, and several number of billionaires on the rise.
Perhaps some Chinese tycoons in the private seсtor – relatively neglected in the anti-corruption campaign, – became rich under some circumstances similarly experienced by some of their XIX-century American counterparts, who made their fortunes by taking advantage of loopholes in the legal system before their descendants managed to become acceptable or respectable and even philanthropists in the XX century.
Actually the process in China is far more complex. The largest drive to clean up society and politics in China’s contemporary history in normal times is seen by China’s Communist Party as a precondition to remain in power in the long run while contributing to improving people’s material lives.
Some international analysts may criticize the limits or the scope or the methodology followed by the campaign, but it is undeniable that at the most senior levels China is in a dynamic that in some democracies, no matter in the West or in the developing world, goes at a much lower pace or remains relatively unnoticed.
Once again, China can be understood as a laboratory of the human condition. In current times, as widespread corruption puts into question the legitimacy of several governments, it seems more reverberating and timely than ever Confucius saying quoted by scholars and Chinese Communist Party officials studying and fighting corruption: «The king is the boat and the common people the water; the water can carry the boat, but it can also capsize and sink the boat». (2)