Corruption: Whose Life and Death Issue?

Posted by Duncan Freeman on 15/01/14

The world knows that China is corrupt. We are constantly told so not just by the Western media, but also by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership and China’s own media. The Western media regale us with stories about corruption in China reaching to the highest levels of the Party and government. The CCP leadership tell us that corruption is a problem that threatens its very existence and the official Chinese media are also full of stories of corruption. China’s social media have become anti-corruption vigilantes, constantly exposing new cases.

Corruption is at the top of the agenda in China. Since China’s new leadership came to power, they have repeatedly focused on the issue. Xi Jinping has said that corruption threatens the collapse of the CCP and the Chinese state. Of course, there is nothing new in that. It is many years since China’s leadership said that corruption is a life and death issue for the CCP without any improvement in the situation. Still, it appears that the current leadership is attempting to do more about it than their immediate predecessors. Since Xi came to power, a steady stream of Party and government officials, many of them high-ranking at both the central and local level, have come under investigation.

It is not clear how effective this can be in the long term. Can the internal CCP disciplinary organs that the Party prefers really create clean government in China? Most observers outside China, and many in China, would say the answer is no, and that China needs the full paraphernalia of a Western legal system in order to tackle corruption. The CCP for the moment appears to believe that they can do without this. The Party has committed itself to invest in efforts to constrain corruption as a long-term policy, and has announced reforms in how the problem will be tackled.

Transparency International (TI) recently released its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2013. The TI Index is a commonly accepted standard and is widely used by the Western media to gauge the level of corruption around the world. The TI Index is usually taken as definitive evidence that China is highly corrupt. The Index for China is 40, where the maximum possible score is 100 (the closer to 100 a country is the less corrupt it is). This puts China 80th place out of 177 countries on the ranking. For a country which is supposedly so corrupt, the fact that it is in the top half of the ranking suggests that perhaps it is not quite as bad is we are often led to believe. From a European point of view, we comfortably assume that China is considerably more corrupt than us. But according the TI Index this is not quite the case. The ranking suggests that China is about as corrupt as Greece (40), Bulgaria (41), Romania (43) and Italy (43). China on this measure is as corrupt as large parts of the EU. (Who suffers more in the comparison is an interesting question, the Chinese who are as corrupt as the Europeans, or the Europeans who are as corrupt as the Chinese?)

It is possible that TI Index measures nothing of any consequence. It is an index of perceptions of corruption, not actual corruption and is based on a composite of various surveys of corruption. There are arguments for saying that there is simply no feasible way to measure real levels corruption. Corruption by its very nature is not open and measurable and perceptions of corruption often have little relation to reality. Despite these shortcomings, the TI Index is still taken to be a standard.

As TI has pointed out, corruption is a widespread problem in the EU that results in huge economic costs. One recent report on the EU from TI noted that in some countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia there has been a reversal of progress on anti-corruption since accession to the EU and in others such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain there are serious deficits in public sector accountability and deep-rooted problems of inefficiency, malpractice and corruption. Corruption may or may not be a life and death matter for China, but it certainly is one that contributed to putting the EU in intensive care. There are many causes of the crippling crisis from which the Eurozone suffers, not least the fundamental flaws in its conception, and the blame must be shared by all its constituent parts, but it is no coincidence that the immediate trigger to the crisis occurred in its most corrupt member. Moreover, corruption will continue to undermine any cure. Strangely enough, for an institution which has passed through a near-death experience in which corruption was a contributing factor, the EU appears remarkably insouciant about the problem. Unlike in China, leading EU officials and politicians generally prefer not to mention corruption.

Perhaps the EU should learn from China, and make corruption a priority (on the other hand perhaps China’s leadership could learn from the EU, and not talk about corruption, and hope it disappears from public consciousness). Both China and the EU face serious challenges of corruption, but at the moment there is only one that has made dealing with it a policy priority. Which of the two, if any, it will be a life and death issue for remains to be seen.

One Response to Corruption: Whose Life and Death Issue? »»

  1. Comment by A Londoner | 2014/01/19 at 15:04:11

    Corruption is a symptom of the level of social trust which seems to me to be of fundamental importance. But you have not explained why they matter. Why is corruption bad?.


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