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Anti-graft drive bolsters reform

By Cheng Li and Ryan Mcelveen | China Daily | Updated: 2014-07-24 07:15

In leading the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in a well-publicized probe to Xu Caihou, a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission accused of selling ranks in the military, Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has affirmed that his anti-corruption drive is the boldest and most serious that China has ever experienced.

If there were ever doubts that Xi could restore faith in a party that had suffered less public trust, many of them have been dispelled by the steady dismissals of high-ranking officials since he became Party general secretary in late 2012. The drums began to beat louder in 2013 with the successive convictions of former Political Bureau member Bo Xilai and former minister of railways Liu Zhijun.

So far, more than 182,000 Party officials at various levels have been investigated, and 30-plus leaders of vice-ministerial level or above arrested, including five members of the 18th CPC Central Committee.

Although the staggering number of officials nabbed in the campaign has helped Xi consolidate power within the leadership, some analysts have expressed concern that the campaign has been excessive, and has dissuaded officials from making decisions, and has weakened China's economy. These arguments are not only inaccurate and misleading, but also distract people from the critical positive changes that the anti-corruption campaign and associated reforms can bring to Chinese society.

Xi's campaign has been deep and pervasive, but it has not been excessive. A large number - but only a small percentage - of officials has been affected. China has more than 5,000 officials at the vice-ministerial level or above. Of those, only 30-plus have been arrested, which means that just more than 0.6 percent of the total have been pulled up.

Even if the Party is using a magnifying glass to monitor official behavior, officials have not been dissuaded from making decisions nor has the functioning of the bureaucracy been affected. Instead, there have been clear positive changes in official behavior because of officials' fear of being caught for wrongdoing. There is no evidence that officials have stopped making decisions out of fear of being reprimanded. In the end, officials will be removed from office if they fail to ensure that the government functions properly and helps economic growth.

Finally, any drop in consumption because of a decline in official corruption will not irreparably hurt the economy - it will help it. Even if real estate agents, and high-end restaurateurs, liquor makers and food producers continue to experience a decline in their sales, China's economy will not be significantly affected. Instead, the authorities can use the taxpayers' money, previously saved to fund these unsanctioned purchases, on the projects it was supposed to fund initially, which will improve infrastructure, public services and employment rates.

Most important, in the long run the economy will be bolstered as the success of Xi's anti-corruption campaign increases his political capital, allowing him to implement deeper economic reforms that will induce greater confidence in China's economy.

The real risk for Xi is that, as a result of his success, he is not using the necessary political capital to strengthen institutional reforms. An ad hoc campaign mode can reduce corruption in the short term, but systematic reforms are critical to bring fundamental change toward good governance in China.

Cheng Li is director of the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution, where Ryan McElveen is assistant director. The article is an excerpt from the authors' essay, Debunking Misconceptions About Xi Jinping's Anti-corruption Campaign, first published on China-US Focus website.


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