People may be surprised to know that of the 39 million people who work for the government in China only slightly more than 7 million are Party members. 

The government, under Xi Jinpin’s wide sweeping campaign, initially tackled corruption at the higher levels of the national, provincial and larger cities. At those levels, the vast majority are Communist Party members or members of recognised parties which support the Party. So, the headlines of One Million Cases Prosecuted indicate how vast the reform effort has been within the Party itself. 

Now the government is embarking on the second phase of its anti-corruption campaign, which will aggressively reach down to the small city and village levels, where many are not Party members, but have been equally corrupt. To do this the party, in addition to filing more cases, has enacted rules against indirect corruption, for example, to prevent revolving door arrangements where officials, whether in the Party or not, would do favours for companies in return for a soft landing once they left the government. The reality is that, while people applaud the government’s willingness to take on corruption at the higher levels, the corruption they engage in does not really touch their everyday lives. But the corrupt city and village officials who enrich themselves, take bribes and steer money to friends and family, using the resources meant to improve roads, schools, hospitals, jobs and opportunity, are daily reminders of the corruption they have had to endure.

The Party’s latest move, which is being reviled by many outside of China as a violation of basic rights, is to treat all government employees, whether in the Party or not, the same. It is a recognition that joining the government to serve your people and country creates a special obligation that is higher than the commitment people make when they are in the private sector. For example, there can be no toleration for traitors in the armed forces or in areas of strategic importance. There are different levels of conduct required and different legal procedures and laws that govern. 

For China, as a one-party system, the burden of governing is significantly higher than their democratic opposites. There are no warring political parties to use as a pressure relief valve, for failed government policies. In China, the party is responsible for government, full stop. It, therefore, must have the trust and faith of the population to maintain its legitimacy. That means making sure those who work for the government are committed to serving the people, rather than themselves. Yes, it is a sacrifice, but one which people choose when they join. 

Can there be abuses? Of course. But there is no logical or effective alternative for China. So, instead of criticising China for taking the situation in hand, nations who have issues with corruption would be better served by watching and studying what China is doing. Rabid knee-jerk reactions may make some feel superior, but they are not going to change anything. 

Einar Tangen is a China analyst based in Beijing.

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