Category: Asia

Loud thunder, little rain: China’s new leaders target corruption

by Kenneth Chern

China’s new leaders are aware of the danger that corruption poses to the nation’s social stability and economic development.

But entrenched corruption at the local and national levels, including among the families and friends of those very leaders, will make it difficult for them to break the link between money and power that frustrates the masses but sustains the power of a Communist Party that long ago abandoned political belief for economic gain.

A 2007 report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Minxin Pei called the level of Chinese corruption “astonishing,” noting that it cost $US86 billion a year, more than China’s annual education budget. Things have not gotten any better. The Bo Xilai affair – Bo’s wiretapping of other top Chinese leaders, his son’s privileged lifestyle abroad, and his wife’s murder conviction — was but the most lurid case of rampant corruption that has shaken the trust of the Chinese people in their government.

Other high-profile cases have left the public seething: the melamine-laced milk that poisoned hundreds of infants; the Wenchuan earthquake that toppled “tofu schoolhouses” onto pupils while government buildings stood firm; the bullet train crash in Wenzhou that disgraced railway czar Liu Zhijun; and the sale by Wukan officials of prized farmland to real estate developers that triggered villager demonstrations and violence.

In his speech to the 18th Party Congress last week, outgoing President Hu Jintao stressed the need to fight corruption, warning that if the issue is not addressed, “it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” Significantly, he warned leading officials to “strengthen education and discipline over their family and staff.” Along the same lines, incoming Party general secretary Xi Jinping in 2004 instructed, “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.”

But Chinese leaders have made similar warnings for years without making serious headway. That’s because of what Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution terms the “marriage of wealth and political power” which supports an economic strategy based on rewards to local officials for “producing rapid GDP growth while keeping a lid on social unrest.” Put another way, the breakneck speed of Chinese economic development provides wealth that is distributed as patronage and provides support for the Party’s continued political monopoly. And campaigns against corruption evoke the Chinese proverb, “Loud thunder, little rain.”

More specifically, Minxin Pei cites two characteristics of corruption — the corruption of local state institutions through the purchase and sale of government appointments, and “collusion among local ruling elites” or “groups of local officials who cooperate and protect each other.” These practices drain the economy and feed public cynicism but they nurture the political and economic ambitions of entrepreneurs and government officials who thrive in a poorly defined regulatory and policy environment.

This is the social context in which Chinese leaders and their families operate, which is why the calls of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for discipline of families and staff is so interesting. Politicians, their relatives, staff, and friends use their political clout to build businesses and line their pockets. The average wealth of the richest 70 members of the National People’s Congress in 2011 was over US$1 billion. China’s central bank reportedly has evidence that up to 18,000 officials and employees of state-owned firms have fled China since the mid-1990s, taking $127 billion with them.

And recent reports have shown how relatives of top Chinese officials have grown wealthy. Xi himself reportedly has sisters and brothers-in-law with “huge interests in China’s real estate, minerals and telecommunications sectors.” And the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, perhaps the strongest reform advocate of all China’s top leaders, has been reported by the New York Times to have US$2.7 billion in wealth.

The reality is that Chinese leaders, even those who call for (and may sincerely believe in) reform and a crackdown on corruption, find themselves in a social web of political influence and enrichment that sustains the status quo. That reality will make it just as hard for the new leaders as it was for their predecessors to make a serious tilt at corruption.

Corruption and influence peddling are as old as the Chinese nation, and as old as human history. What is new is the demand of poor farmers, workers, and China’s growing middle class for a level playing field and a fairer chance for opportunity. Growing social tensions and environmental stresses make the current system unsustainable for the long term.

How Ji Xinping and the new Politburo meet that test will determine history’s verdict on whether they are authentic leaders with the courage to take the needed steps for the common good of the Chinese people and the welfare of the Chinese nation.

Kenneth Chern is Professor of Asian Policy at the Swinburne University of Technology and Executive Director of the Swinburne Leadership Institute.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.edu.au

 

The Era of American Dominance is Coming to a Close

by Andrew J. Bacevich

The “postwar world” brought into existence as a consequence of World War II is coming to an end. A major redistribution of global power is underway.

In every aspect of human existence, change is a constant.  Yet change that actually matters occurs only rarely.  Even then, except in retrospect, genuinely transformative change is difficult to identify.  By attributing cosmic significance to every novelty and declaring every unexpected event a revolution, self-assigned interpreters of the contemporary scene — politicians and pundits above all — exacerbate the problem of distinguishing between the trivial and the non-trivial.  

Did 9/11 “change everything”?  For a brief period after September 2001, the answer to that question seemed self-evident: of course it did, with massive and irrevocable implications.  A mere decade later, the verdict appears less clear.  Today, the vast majority of Americans live their lives as if the events of 9/11 had never occurred.  When it comes to leaving a mark on the American way of life, the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have long since eclipsed Osama bin Laden.  (Whether the legacies of Jobs and Zuckerberg will prove other than transitory also remains to be seen.)  Anyone claiming to divine the existence of genuinely Big Change Happening Now should, therefore, do so with a sense of modesty and circumspection, recognizing the possibility that unfolding events may reveal a different story. 

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The Developing World, Leading on Climate Change?

by Vivek Dehejia

In what may turn out to be one of the abiding ironies of global geopolitics, leadership on climate change seems to have suddenly passed from the developed to the developing world, as has public anxiety about the damaging effects of a changing climate.

As recently as the Copenhagen summit in late 2009, the West blamed large developing countries such as China and India for scuppering the chances of a “grand agreement” to curb the emission of greenhouse gases. Poor developing countries argued they needed the right to pollute in order to catch up to the West in terms of economic development, while the rich nations clucked that the world could ill afford more carbon emissions.

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Using the Colombia Model in Afghanistan

by Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon

Why the Colombia model — even if it means drug war and armed rebellion — is the best chance for U.S. success in Central Asia.

President Barack Obama made clear this week that the remaining troops will soon come home from Iraq. Some 10 years after the first troops landed in Afghanistan, we’re now nearly back to a one-front war. But where are we, really? It’s clear that both citizens and Washington alike are collectively weary of war and frustrated by this particular mission, with its interminable timelines and uncertain partners in Kabul and Islamabad, even if it has only been three to four years since the United States intensified its collective focus and resources on this mission. 

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War and Drugs in Afghanistan

by Vanda Felbab-Brown

Since 2001, Afghanistan has become synonymous with the term “narcostate” and the associated spread of crime and illegality. Though the Afghan drug economy peaked in 2007 and 2008, cultivation this year still amounted to 325,000 acres, and the potential production of opium reached 6,400 tons (.pdf). Narcotics production and counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan are of critical importance not only for drug control there and worldwide, but also for the security, reconstruction and rule of law efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many of the counternarcotics policies adopted during most of the past decade not only failed to reduce the size and scope of the illicit economy in Afghanistan, but also had serious counterproductive effects on the other objectives of peace, state-building and economic reconstruction.

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