Julia Kwong, University of Manitoba, Canada; Richard Levy, Salem State College; Randall Peerenboom, University of California, Los Angeles; Commentator: James Feinerman, Georgetown University Law Center

Despite Beijing’s claim that it seeks to develop the rule of law, corruption at all levels of government and society remains widespread and is even thought to be increasing. Has corruption become a systemic feature of the communist regime? What are the direct and indirect causes of official corruption in China—a mixed economy, cultural traditions, an absence of political transparency, the rule of law and an independent media? What are the economic, social and political implications of corruption for China? Is China’s new leadership likely to address this problem in a meaningful way? Four speakers—Julia C. Kwong, Richard J. Levy, Randall Peerenboom, and James V. Feinerman—examined these and related issues at a December 1 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program. On the next day, Kwong and Levy spoke on the same topic at a Capitol Hill breakfast seminar for congressional staff on the same topic.

Kwong started the discussion by exploring the causes for the pervasive corruption in China. According to her, the new opportunities provided by market socialism, the lack of collectively shared moral constraints, and the official encouragement to make money have resulted in the growth of corruption over the last two decades. The Chinese government should take coordinated efforts to systematically remove the loopholes embedded in the new structural arrangements. It also needs to abandon its veneration of the blind pursuit of wealth, and strengthen official and popular commitment to the values underlying a healthy and viable economy.

Levy argued that social conflicts have produced two different types of corruption in China—the “parasitic” rent-seeking corruption of cadres, and the structurally “creative” corruption of the entrepreneurs. The contradictions between development goals and anti-corruption goals, the divisions within the Chinese leadership, and the overall weakening of the Chinese state vis-a-vis the society all reduce the efficacy of China’s anti-corruption efforts. Thus, the Chinese regime’s present anti-corruption policies are unlikely to succeed in significantly addressing the growing political and economic polarization in China.

According to Peerenboom, China’s economic transition and the incomplete separation of government from commercial or financial enterprises have resulted in corruption, which has undermined the authority and legitimacy of the state, including the administration and the courts. Although in some cases corruption may have efficiency- enhancing effects, the overall result is likely to be less efficiency and surely a decrease in the quality of administrative decision-making and the quality of justice. An honest judiciary depends more on the internal norms and sense of professional responsibility of judges than on external supervision or high salary of the judges.

Feinerman offered his commentary on the three speakers’ remarks at the end of the seminar. As he argued, corruption is not new in China. While it was less obvious in pre-1978 China before the country’s economic opening, it has assumed a modern format with a heightened emphasis on the accumulation of vast wealth since the beginning of the reform era. Feinerman concluded that better legislation in China is not the final solution for corruption, which should be tackled in a more comprehensive way.

While examining corruption in China from the different perspectives of cultural tradition, political economy and legal operation, all four speakers agreed that corruption is a serious and growing problem in China. They differed, however, as to what degree and in which way Beijing can resolve such a problem, which has greatly weakened the legitimacy of the Chinese state, despite its achievement in maintaining China’s high economic growth rate over the past two decades.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
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