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Corruption, Constitutionalism & Control: Implications of the 4th Plenum for China and U.S.-China Relations

How will China’s attempts to rectify the Party and strengthen the legal foundations of its governance shape the nation during Xi’s tenure, and how should American leaders, corporations, and other institutions analyze and respond to Xi’s reform program? The Kissinger Institute explored these issues with two of America’s leading experts on corruption and legal reform in China. Watch the discussion or read the English/Chinese summaries here.

Date & Time

Nov. 25, 2014
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Key Takeaways

  • The 4th Plenum did not result in groundbreaking reforms to the existing political system; its decisions reveal a continued deference to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and an insistence on placing rule of law secondary to the Party.
  • Corruption remains one of the government’s top priorities and reaffirms the leadership’s resolve to seek out and prosecute those suspected of a crime, regardless of position or stature.
  • Corruption within the legal system continues to negatively impact U.S.-China relations both politically and economically. Specifically, intellectual property infringement and American perception of disproportionate punishment for corruption charges continues to complicate bilateral relations.   

The recently concluded 4th Plenum of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress focused on “governing the nation in accordance with law” and laid out legal reforms that would strengthen the institutional bases for the economic and social reforms laid out at last year’s 3rd Plenum. However, these new reforms (whose intended effect is to build trust in the CCP’s ability to behave righteously and govern justly) have also sparked a new round of discussions centered on the topic of corruption, the Party’s role in perpetuating corruption, and how that role has impacted, and continues to impact, China’s goals domestically and abroad.

On November 25, 2014, the Kissinger Institute’s Director Robert Daly was joined by experts Donald C. Clarke, David Weaver Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, and Andrew Wedeman, professor of political science at Georgia State University, to talk candidly about corruption in the Chinese context, the CCP’s efforts to combat it, and the implications of that fight for American policy makers, potential investors, and other institutions.

Robert Daly began the conversation with a brief overview of what General Secretary Xi Jinping’s political strategy has been since taking office. It is clear Xi’s decision to push onward with his anti-corruption campaign as well as his willingness to bring down officials at all levels has resulted in enormous domestic popularity and praise for his leadership. Moreover, the drive that initially propelled the campaign does not appear to be waning. To the contrary, plenum documents confirm that China will continue to pursue and prosecute those suspected of corruption with the same tenacity of the last two years. Daly ended his remarks with a poignant question: Is Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign principled or political?  

According to Andrew Wedeman, the answer is far more complex than it first appears. He explains that the easy answer is that Xi’s campaign is nothing more than “pure power politics”. Xi prosecutes high-ranking officials (“tigers”, as they are referred to in his speeches) such as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and Xu Caihou because doing so is an effective way of eliminating potential rivals, demonstrates his capabilities, all the while consolidating his power. However, such an answer does not explain why the bulk of Xi’s campaign has been made up of middle-tier officials (i.e., the tens of thousands of people employed in leadership positions whose indictments rarely, if ever, make media headlines). Thus, Wedeman asserts that Xi is clearly trying to accomplish two things at once: he wants to eliminate the big tigers while simultaneously weeding out corrupt officials at lower levels. Despite the ambitiousness of Xi’s goals, however, Wedeman believes that the campaign will ultimately fail at inciting substantive change because, as history has shown, corruption is not a problem that a country can eradicate in a few years. While Xi has made some progress in removing certain negative elements from China’s political machine, he will probably be unable to clean house as comprehensively or as permanently as his supporters may desire.

Donald C. Clarke summarized the legal reforms offered by the 4the Plenum and discussed the implications for U.S.-China relations. He explained that the Party Congress ultimately offered no fundamental changes to the relationship between the legal system and the CCP. Simply put, the Party will retain primacy over the rule of law. However, Clarke advises against writing off the reforms as meaningless. He argues that the plenum documents call for significant reforms in judicial management and court systems that would alter the way judges are selected and promoted, thereby addressing the problem of local protectionism. At the same time however, Clarke acknowledged there were inherent contradictions in the plenum’s proposals and, like Wedeman, conceded that there will be little to no traction for reform unless there is substantial change to the present system of incentives that preserves these problems. 

One of the most important takeaways from the 4th Plenum reforms was a demonstrated effort to reduce local protectionism and increase professionalism. Clarke asserts that this shift, if realized, could be immensely beneficial especially in regards to the protection of intellectual property rights because in many cases, violators of these rights are enterprises that hold significant sway at the local level. However, Clarke also warns that none of these efforts will make a difference if intellectual property infringement remains an area of tension between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Tellingly, there have already been complaints against the Chinese government about selective enforcement and anti-monopoly laws that appear to target foreign businesses and the United States, in particular.

A second area of U.S.-China contention is the issue of extradition. To the frustration of the Chinese government, many officials charged with corruption have sought and successfully obtained political asylum in the United States. Even more vexing for the CCP, it is unlikely that these officials will ever go to trial within China’s borders because Beijing and Washington currently do not have an extradition treaty. According to Clarke, they are unlikely to ever have one because Washington does not believe Chinese defendants will be granted adequate due process in China and would most likely face disproportionate punishment for their alleged crimes.

Corruption will continue unabated unless Beijing addresses the root causes of corruption and undergoes monumental reforms to curtail the ability of and incentive for local level officials to exploit the system. Though the anti-corruption campaign represents a good start to that mission, there are inherent problems within the campaign’s structure (e.g., a lack of transparency and internal corruption concerns) that limit the movement’s prospects for success and impede bilateral cooperation on the issue. Lacking significant change to China’s political structure, corruption will remain an uphill battle for the Communist Party for foreseeable future. 

--Michelle Neal and Sandy Pho  



  • 习近平的“反腐”兼具原则性与政治性;反腐若要持久,必须更具原则性
  • 四中全会未对法律系统与中共/政府之间关系进行根本性改革,但提出了有意义的改革提案
  • 四中全会并未针对关系美国利益或价值的三个重要课题进行讨论
  • 四中全会反应中央对腐败的态度是:系统整体是好的,有问题的只是腐败的个体

2014年11月25日,针对前不久刚闭幕的中国共产党第十八届中央委员会第四次全体会议(简称十八届四中全会),基辛格中美关系研究所举办了名为“腐败,宪政,与控制”的活动。本次活动由基辛格中美关系研究所主任戴博先生(Robert Daly)主持。列席的两位发言人分别是乔治亚州立大学研究中国腐败问题的政治学教授魏德安(Andrew Wedeman)和乔治·华盛顿大学法学院郭丹青教授(Donald C. Clarke)。 在四中全会中,中共强调了“依法治国”的理念,然而由于会议文件对“依法治国”的具体含义和宪法的位置不甚明确,西方媒体报道大多集中在文件甚少提及的重要课题而非改革本身。戴博在开场发言里表示希望这次活动能检视“依法治国”和习近平反腐运动的关联,并探讨四中全会提出的改革前景。



在四中全会决议对中美关系的含义上,既有正面也有负面。其中减少地方保护和提升司法专业性可以加强对知识产权的维护,从而对中美关系有积极的影响。而负面的信息则主要源于四中全会并未针对关系美国利益或美国价值的三个重要课题进行讨论。一是中国近来有选择性地对一些美国公司实施反垄断法的问题;二是由于中美至今没有引渡条约而导致众多中国逃犯逃匿美国的问题; 三是一个美国高度关注却在这次四中全会中没有被重点讨论的人权问题。


--张羽旸 (Ms. Yuyang Zhang)

You can also watch the event on C-SPAN here.


Hosted By

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more

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