How to deal with the CCP’s “fourth danger”?

In his July 1 speech commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) paused only briefly from his message of glory and progress to warn that the Party now faces internal challenges that are “more strenuous and pressing than at any point in the past.” Hu said that the Party faces “four dangers” — lost vitality (精神懈怠), insufficient capacity (能力不足), alienation from the people (脱离群众) and rampant corruption (消极腐败).

In one way or another, the last of these, corruption, has been in China’s headlines ever since. Even as celebrations for the anniversary were going on, a scandal was brewing online surrounding the China Red Cross Society, a state-run charity organization. This scandal was set off with callow social media posts by Guo Meimei (郭美美), 20, who flaunted photos of herself and her wealthy lifestyle and claimed to be the “general manager” of a company affiliated with the Red Cross. [3-minute rundown of the scandal at Link TV].

The “Guo Meimei affair,” the facts of which remain frustratingly unclear, has sizzled deep under the surface through July as another story of corruption and incompetence has come to the fore. That story, of course, is all about China’s embattled Ministry of Railways and the country’s monumentally expensive (and apparently rash) push to develop high-speed rail. China’s former railway minister, Liu Zhijun (刘志军), was arrested for corruption in February along with other key figures, including former deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang (张曙光), who is reported to have stashed billions of dollars overseas (where his wife and daughter, some say, are now living in comfort). [Here is my latest Link TV 3-minute rundown, of crash coverage in China.]

Thieving state assets and stashing them overseas is clearly a major, major problem for the CCP. But no one seems to know just how big it is — and no one stands by their statistics for very long. However strong the apparent resolve to deal with the issue, it’s just too sensitive to talk about too openly.

Yesterday the overseas edition of China’s official People’s Daily newspaper issued a public apology to “readers at home and overseas”, saying government statistics on corrupt officials absconding with state assets included in a July 26 report were “false.” The original language in the report was as follows:

According to estimates made in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report “China Research Report on Countermeasures for the Punishment and Prevention of Corruption” (中国惩治和预防腐败重大对策研究), China presently has more than 4,000 officials who have fled overseas. The Commission for Discipline Inspection says that in the recent 30 years, officials fleeing overseas have run away with more than 50 billion US dollars in assets (about 320 billion yuan), for an average of 100 million yuan in stolen assets per person.

So, were these numbers wrong? Or was the overseas edition of the People’s Daily in the wrong to release them? It is hard to tell whether this apology was actually meant for “readers at home and overseas,” or for Chinese leaders who forced the paper to back-peddle.

This isn’t the first time staggering numbers like this have been revealed. Back in June, Beijing Youth Daily reporter Cheng Jie (程婕) reported that figures released by an enforcement division of China’s central bank showed that since the mid-1990s an estimated 16-18,000 Party, government, police and state-owned enterprise officials from China had absconded overseas with approximately 800 billion yuan in assets, or roughly 123.6 billion US dollars.

The same figures made the front page of the June 15 edition of New Express newspaper, a spin-off of Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News.

The basis for these reports was a document released on the internet by the Anti-Money Laundering Bureau (Security Bureau) of the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank. The report was called, “Research on the Channels and Detection Methods for the Transfer Overseas of Asset by Corrupt Elements in Our Country” (我国腐败分子向境外转移资产的途径及监测方法研究).

These figures were shared widely on China’s web back in June — just have a look at this Baidu search – and were hotly discussed in social media, as well as becoming fodder for comic artists.


[ABOVE: In this cartoon, posted by the Kunming-based studio Yuan Jiao Man’s Space (圆觉漫时空) to QQ.com, corrupt government officials (identifiable by their imperial-era official hats) hurry through a series of underground tunnels, grinning and making off with bags full of riches.]

For China’s leadership, of course, this issue isn’t at all funny. As Hu stressed in his July 1 speech, corruption is one of the chief dangers facing the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, and one that taps into deep resentment over the way government officials and their family members have — in the eyes of many — benefitted disproportionately from China’s economic development.

And as the scandals involving the railway ministry and the Red Cross Society of China have shown only too clearly, resolving the issue of corruption is fundamental in dealing with Hu Jintao’s danger number three: alienation from the people.

But I would suggest that all of these recent scandals illustrate a fifth danger, one that in various ways is now being debated with deep ambivalence within the Party — and that is lack of openness and transparency.

The need for openness was of course a critical issue in the recent wave of public anger surrounding the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou. But the Party’s hesitancy was illustrated in chiaroscuro on July 28 and 29.

Visiting the site of the crash, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to get to the bottom of the collision and its causes, holding those responsible to account. But Chinese media had scarcely begun to exploit the opportunity for openness afforded by Wen’s visit before the Central Propaganda Department came down hard.

On the question of openness, contradictions abound.

On August 3, just as Chinese media were reeling from the tightening over the weekend, the official Xinhua News Agency sent out a release called “Central Party Demands Progress of Major Sudden-breaking Incidents Be Announced.” The release dealt with “Opinions Concerning the Deepening of Openness of Government Affairs and Strengthening Service in Government Affairs” (关于深化政务公开加强政务服务的意见), a notice issued by the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the General Office of the State Council.

This “Notice” — I thank Jamie Horsley of Yale’s China Law Center for clarifying this point — has been in the drafting process since 2009 and was worked through various drafts last year before being finalized. But its release on the heels of last week’s public opinion tsunami over the July 23 crash is almost certainly no coincidence.

It’s fair to say that the “Notice” — along with other related moves such as the 2008 legislation on open government information — reflects one school of thinking within the Chinese Communist Party, the idea that openness and accountability are crucial to maintaining legitimacy.

This idea is plainly contradicted by the actions of propaganda authorities, a tug-of-war of priorities not missed by Chinese journalists. He Yanguang (贺延光), a widely respected veteran photojournalist with China Youth Daily, wrote on his Sina Weibo account Wednesday:

I don’t understand! Xinhua News Agency says in an official notice today that there was a need to grasp openness [in the handling] of major sudden-breaking incidents and problems of key concern to the people . . . to thoroughly bring the supervisory role of the media into play, and to strengthen the monitoring [of government] by society . . . Well then, why in recent days have directives prevented media from asking questions and commenting, and made them pull countless pages overnight, so that resentment bristles in the media? Do they up there want to act like whores and build monuments to their chastity? Or is the propaganda department beyond the central Party’s control?

Plenty of Party leaders have argued in recent years that openness of information is a key part of good governance and instrumental to stemming public opinion crises. In 2008, Wang Yang (汪洋), Guangdong’s party secretary, called for greater openness as he likened stifled public opinion to the dangerous “barrier lakes” forming along rivers near the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake. He said leaders must listen to the words of the people, and not build up “language barrier lakes” (言塞湖) that might threaten to burst (arguably exactly what happened after the July 23 train collision).

But the more farsighted priority of pushing openness to tackle key issues and build legitimacy is most often frustrated in the shortsighted present by the need to maintain social and political stability by enforcing media controls, or “correct guidance of public opinion” (a lesson from June 4, 1989, that the CCP has never forgotten).

In a piece on page 23 of yesterday’s edition of the People’s Daily, we see the tug-of-war at work once again. The editorial, ” Rampant Corruption is a Fatal Wound to the Party” (“消极腐败”是政党致命伤), is the latest piece from the opinion desk of the People’s Daily that penned another group of moderate essays calling for “tolerance” earlier this year.

The editorial is firm in describing corruption as a scourge that must be pulled out by its roots. It is clear that the consequences of not doing so are dire:

Corrupt politics also resulted in mutiny in the Philippines, unrest in Thailand, political change in Tunisia. People firmly believe that corruption is the great enemy of rulers. We are reminded profoundly by the political death of the Soviet Union, and by dramatic transformation overnight and political change in Eastern Europe, that in just the same way black corruption might corrode the red organism [of the CCP].


[ABOVE: Page 23 of yesterday's People's Daily, with the editorial on corruption at top.]

But again, this resolve on the issue of corruption is not supported by an equal resolve to be open about corruption, or to be open about the core question of political reform.

Couched in terms of the People’s Daily editorial, this latter question would be: How can the mighty “red organism” transform its own nature?

Not without scrutiny, certainly. Which is why openness — of the press and eventually the political system — is so critical.

The failure to allow open information and debate on key issues like corruption and political reform is therefore a fifth danger facing the Party. In the face of continued controls on China’s press, calls for greater openness like the “Notice” announced by Xinhua, and Wen Jiabao’s pledge to get to the bottom of the July 23 crash, look very much like “openness” behind closed doors.

And that’s unlikely to appease the clawing crowd outside.

11 Comments to “How to deal with the CCP’s “fourth danger”?”

  1. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    The truth of the matter is, in China there is no such thing called NGO. Every organization involved in carrying out functions resembling a NGO in the West is connected in one way or another with the government or the party. I once gave a talk to the overseas-returnee association of a major coastal city for free. I visited their offices and facility. They chauffeured me in their association vehicle. I took me out for dinner. I asked them who funded their association. They said the association is financed entirely by the metropolitan government. I mistakenly thought that the overseas returnees sponsored and run it. Their staff were employed by the government. In China, the ordinary folks don’t trust any charity. They don’t donate unless they have to do it to show they support the government and gain some recognition to advance their interests.

  2. ltlee says:

    @expat
    IMO, the term 消极腐败 is excellent. The translation “passive corruption” is also fine. If I were to offer additional explanation, it is corruption due to an official’s lack of alertness or vigilance. 精神懈怠, 能力不足 ,脱离群众 will inevitably lead to corruption, one form or the other, although it is not necessarily the official’s intention.

  3. expat says:

    ref. 消极腐败: neither “passive”, nor “rampant” match remotely to the 消极 part of the 4 characters. these last 4 characters is a made-up term to match the other three 4 character terms. 消极 serve a numerical need and to soften the impact of the unambiguous meaning of 腐败. (please note that grammatically the 4 terms are not matched: 精神懈怠, 能力不足 are a pair, both are noun plus an adjective-sort of. but 脱离群众 is verb plus noun. 消极, 腐败 both are basically adjectives; they do not define each other. as a matter of fact, 消极 and 精神懈怠 are synonymous, the basic meaning of both is a lack of motivation. though one can perceive 消极 as passive aggressive, but “passive aggressive corruption”?)

    in modern China, especially in the period since the so called Liberation (1949), the will to rule through the control of discourse has succeeded in thoroughly decimating an already languid written language, which is convenient. such insight comes from years of having to live with it. for the regular China watchers, the lesson is not to take the CCP’s words too seriously. most times they mean nothing.

  4. David says:

    Justrecently:

    Fair enough. However, I think the translation “passive corruption” makes little sense. It’s actually a Chinglishy half-translation, leaving the term in some strange no-man’s land between Chinese and English. To the extent that “passive” corruption is exactly what you say, running the gamut from lavish expenditures on buildings to official dinners, it IS rampant corruption. This is not about TYPE, but about seriousness. The leadership is not really saying here’s a TYPE of corruption (“passive”) that is dangerous, and all the other forms are OK. They are talking about corruption of such an extent and seriousness that it has become a problem threatening legitimacy.

    Best,
    David

  5. justrecently says:

    Interesting take, W/SR – I’ve always thought of central and provincial cadres as basically from the same brotherhood, but the idea that the network that stabilizes or dumps each of them was that much more untransparent even for party insiders is new to me.

    David, I can’t quite retrace my own “definition” of 消极腐败 at the moment, but the impression I’ve got from reading the official and mainstream press is that it would really mean passive corruption, as officials would usually be ones who take, and a relative outsider would be the one who gives. Lavish dinners, unnecessarily big official buildings etc. are also frequently referred to as 消极腐败 (even without an allegation that the budget that makes it possible would in itself be illegal, but simply for the waste it would constitute).

  6. Wai Sing-rin says:

    That is indeed a bit rich, Godfree. I don’t think that even the most ardent Party loyalists believe that 86% of the people approve of the government. Cannot you tell from the attendance of the “Founding of the Party” movie? Most of the young people think the Party is a joke. They take a much more meibanfa approach, and look at their shoes in the face of bad deeds out of fear of what can happen to their middling little lives, if they should say something which shows their true feelings about said bad deeds. I was just told by a friend in Shanghai, “Please don’t talk about China anymore, it just makes people sad”. Yesterday, really, and this guy is making 14,000 rmb/month living a middle class life with working wife and kid, so maybe 24000 rmb/month? Not bad.

    As for corruption, I have a perspective which not many Westerners have. I used to work for the Dongbei Mafia (DBM). The difference I see between the Party officials and the DBM are their relationships. DBM relationships are linear and pyramidal, for the most part. At most, one guy is held up by 2 or 3 ropes, with a primary rope supporting most of the weight. Therefore, the fortunes of the guy holding his thread often determines his fate. That demands loyalty, because if the guy holding his thread should fail, the whole chain goes down (or number 2 and 3 decide to cut their losses, and let him go). This also lets people know their places, what they can do, and what they cannot do, with very clear rules and consequences if they break the rules.

    The Party members, on the other hand, have very complex, almost horizontal web structures of guanxi such that it is not possible to always know who is holding this guy up. You see a mass of threads, and somehow, he is not falling, but damned if you can tell which ones are actually supporting the load, and if he should fall due to a cut rope, how far he will fall before other ropes are taught. That makes it a very high risk game for anyone who dares to bring such a person down, because the next rope which gets taught if you cut this other rope, might be connected to sensitive body parts of ones holding him up. Does one really want to be tugging at ropes tied to gonads of truly powerful people? It is like a game of Zenga, but much more complex. Therefore, even if a somewhat powerful person really wants to take down a rival, he is much safer to just leave it be, and not risk angering someone he is not even aware of who is supporting the rival. This situation gives impetus to Party members trying their hands at bad deeds as if it is a free roll of a dice at a casino. If he gets away with it, he wins. If he is caught, most likely, he says, “buhaoyisi, I treat you to dinner, haha” and it is done. No consequences, no crime. The will try things which real mafia will never try. This type of system leads to only loyalty by convenience, not true loyalty.

    Nobody really pockets the entire proceeds of each bad deed. Mostly, the proceeds go into a fund, and some committee in charge distributes the fund of ill gotten gains in a way which he believes will satisfy most of the recipients. So, if you see a list of “China’s richest men”. Don’t you believe a word of it. That income as CEO, or whatever, will need to be divided up into thousands of little pieces to make everyone happy. Most likely, the China Mobile provincial level bosses who are going down monthly (Anhui, Szechuan, Liaoning), they are not sharing enough. Cantonese, duk sig (literally, poison eat, meaning if you got some candy and you eat it all by yourself without sharing), it is seen as a very bad social habit. This is why I see Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, stealing Alipay from Yahoo and Softbank, to give as good will a 100 billion RMB/yr leaking pipe of money flow, to ensure the right people are happy. Changing of the guards in 2012, so the old tie downs need to be renewed, to establish new horizontal web links. Sucks if you own YHOO stocks. Foreigners are not allowed to own Chinese banks. So, Jack Ma declared Alipay a bank, like Paypal handling escrows for Ebay. “Oops, did you hit your head?”

    I was in the middle of a civil war between Party members, A dang vs. B dang. They each tried to throw each other in jail with broadcasts of corruption on the internet. A2 and his staff were killed in an engineered “accident”. But, the worst that happened to B1 was that he was exiled to another SOE, to be isolated since all of his loyal people were already at the old SOE under A dang. I would imagine A1 would be very angry, that his A2 and his staff were killed, but nothing more came of it. wo qiang ni xifan.

    This is why China’s corruption cannot be gotten rid of. That whole charade over in Chongqing. That was not Bo Xilai cleaning the city of corruption. That was just him shaping the environment before bringing in the DBM, with who he and another really big name have had a good working relationship since 2003. Admittedly, the DBM are a much kinder, gentler form of mafia than the Guangdong based Triads which were the core of the Chongqing clan. The DBM are much easier to work with and are people friendly. My former boss said about the really big name back in 2007.

    W/SR

  7. KelvinClone says:

    As someone who reads official news every day for a living I’ve noticed a pattern. In Party news and editorials, commentators are constantly discussing the problem of corruption, but it is always discussed in the most abstract, vague terms possible. It is deemed perfectly OK to say corruption is rampant, referring to it as some amorphous threat, but to actually identify sources of corruption, much less to name names, is strictly out of the question.

    I can see without a doubt that transparency and openness is needed. China needs it’s own fourth estate, especially given that there is no independent judiciary nor direct election to hold Party officials accountable under the rule of law. The constant threat of instability is what makes the Party most responsive to the needs of the people and as long as that threat can be managed vis-a-vis media control, then there are no factors driving the Party to reform itself.

    That said, can China implement full transparency immediately without all hell breaking loose? I still feel that if you put 1.3 billion people in the kitchen to let them see how the sausage is made, you might have an insurrection. Chinese people like sausage, after all. Why not let them continue to eat it?

  8. admin says:

    Justrecently:

    A good question. In translation, as I’m sure you know, so-called “direct” translation is often the poorest reflection of the original. In this case, “passive” or “negative” are in my view inappropriate translations.

    The implication is that this is corruption that has gone unchecked — “rampant” suggests the corruption is furious, unrestrained, unchecked. The use of a terms like “destructive” or “negative” in English would suggest that there are corresponding forms of corruption that might be regarded as “positive” or “constructive,” which the original clearly does not suggest.

    On a related note, I would rarely ever refer to Chinese publications in English as authoritative translations.

    Best,
    David

  9. justrecently says:

    @ staff: 消极腐败 is translated as rampant corruption in the above post. Some other translations could be destructive, or passive. Did you choose rampant because it is used by corresponding Chinese publications in English?

  10. justrecently says:

    That’s a pretty hyperbolic take, GodfreeRoberts. Chinese authorities don’t encourage pessimist views of their own political and social system – and while people in America are free to organize themselves for their political goals, that is nearly impossible in China.

    As for the frequently cited Pew surveys: Optimism is frequently a matter of behavior in China. to some extent (that plays a role which would be hard to measure), optimism is also partly a ritual. One Xinwen Lianbo news broadcast anyday might validate this point. To be an interviewee comes closer to a Xinwen Lianbo situation than talking with people you see everyday: colleagues, friends, Chinese and (maybe) foreigners. The further you get into the hinterland, the more an interview situation will be felt to be a rather official, or extraordinary anyway, event. You simply won’t complain in such a situation, unless you are a fairly sophisticated member of the “middle class”.

    That said, any rise, even from abject poverty to moderate poverty, fells better than any decline, or any feel of it. But then, that’s a classical problem of a developed country. To suggest that “China is overtaking us on both these fronts” – political honesty and media creditworthiness, if I got that right -, is a pretty wild complaint. If you think you can’t become politically active in America, at least show some respect to those who take the risks that come with activism in China.

  11. Where to begin?

    Our own politicians are hopelessly corrupt (“campaign contributions”) and loathed, and our own media has not openly and honestly addressed a single issue of concern to everyone (climate, unemployment, inequality). The New York Times’ own readers give it a trustworthiness ratiing of 17%.

    At least the Chinese leadership is honest (Hu and his anointed successor, Xi, are notoriously so). Their government is wildly popular (86% according to Pew) and successful.

    China’s media is more open every day, and I suspect that they aim to emulate Singapore’s media model as soon a possible.

    My take is that China is overtaking us on both these fronts–a statement whichI never thought I would make…

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