The Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China convened in Beijing this past week. It is the most significant event on the annual political calendar of China.
Once again, the focus appears to be on the elimination of corruption. President Xi Jinping’s administration has devoted itself to that very agenda since assuming office. To date more than one million members of the Communist Party of China (There are 88 million members in total.) have been disciplined. These include Zhou Yongkang, China’s ex-security czar, and Ling Jihua, a former presidential aide. Both were extremely powerful individuals convicted of criminal offenses.
Government corruption, of course, is not unique to China. The Chapman University of American Fears recently released shows government corruption at the top of the list of fears of most Americans. Government corruption, at 61%, exceeded fears about a terrorist attack (41%) or running out of money (40%).
Western political analysts tend to interpret Chinese corruption through a Western lens. Think Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, in the hit series House of Cards. It’s your everyday “anything for power” kind of corruption and has been around as long as there have been governments of any kind.
China’s problem is a little different. The Chinese understand power, for sure, and in China, as in the US, a crafty politician can leverage a little power into a sizeable fortune. Americans accept that as just part of the American dream. Despite often spending their entire lives earning a modest civil servant’s wage, there are no poor ex-presidents. It’s not hard to connect the dots.
Both China and the US, however, are attempting to bring about massive economic, social, political, and environmental change. Their methods are notably different, because the political reality is different in each country.
Governance in the US is done through the rule of ‘law’. The government passes detailed laws and regulations, often requiring thousands of pages of documentation, and then the regulators and the regulated fight it out in court. The cornerstone of this method of governance is the so-called ‘loophole’. If you’re clever enough, or rich enough to hire the cleverest people, you can usually find one. And the courts will uphold your right to serve injustice on your fellow citizens.
In China, in contrast, governance is largely accomplished through the rule of interpretation. Laws and regulations are often intentionally vague, foiling the finders of loopholes and empowering those who are tasked with enforcement of government policy.
Both approaches come with benefits and drawbacks. But both, in the end, lead to highly polarized societies where the interests of the few dominate the interests of the many.
In the US that comes down to money and power. They are the same thing. If you can hire people clever enough to find the loopholes, you can perpetuate the scam.
In China that comes down to the Party. If you control the apparatus of implementation you control the levers of power.
Xi Jinping gets it. I believe he very much wants to make China a better place. (I can’t say that with earnest about either of the US political parties.) He wants to improve the economy, the legal system, the environment. And he knows that he can do none of those things without Party loyalty at every level of government. Because that is how things work in China.
Western political analysts would have us believe that Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption is an attempt to consolidate his power – to silence or eliminate rival factions within the Party. I don’t think so. That would be an American strategy.
Mr. Xi’s agenda, I believe, is about moving China forward – what he refers to as the China Dream. We can only doubt that because we are so cauterized by our own political process.
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