Despite the recent Politburo announcement of an ‘overwhelming victory’ in the war against corruption, some voices are cautiously questioning both the strategy and next steps.

Anti-corruption has been a crusade for Xi Jinping. While his predecessors were keen to combat graft, they called off campaigns after attaining short-term goals. Xi and his allies, on the other hand, have not only maintained pressure on officials at all levels and institutionalised investigations, but also stationed inspectors on site to supervise daily operations. A review of anti-corruption efforts in 2018 found that the campaign against high-level officials—‘tigers’—had not slackened, with an average of two cases reported every month. And in recent days, a Politburo meeting concluded that the crusade had enjoyed ‘overwhelming victories’.

But the anti-corruption effort is being called into question. Some officials complain that inspection teams interrupt their daily work, and often act as a power unto only themselves. Others note that the search to find culprits has led to false allegations against officials by residents or colleagues.

effective, or poorly implemented?

But are campaigns really effective? Inspectors have unearthed local graft networks, where a warlord culture develops because officials use their authority and act as a ‘protective umbrella’ to enable and shield the illegal conduct of others, including criminal gangs.

And why, after years of anti-corruption efforts, do some local governments persist in ignoring Beijing’s directives? One province was so permeated with corruption that some local officials simply ignored central government directives, including a ban on building golf courses; in another district, cadres drank hundreds of bottles of wine in three days, oblivious to admonitions of austerity. In Xinjiang—one of the most tightly-controlled regions of the country—investigators discovered massive thefts of funds earmarked for the indigent.

directives and beyond

As Beijing’s efforts have exposed widespread misconduct, some officials and commentators have begun to speak of alternative approaches—some way to break the stalemate between anti-corruption crusaders and cadres who continue to misbehave.

Party fundamentalists argue that the more corruption found, the greater the need to squeeze even harder. The main cause of graft, this group argues, is inadequate Party loyalty. The prescription they offer is to build teams of cadres who are faithful, clean and dependable, who cooperate and consciously support inspection teams in their mission to rid the government of graft. For some, that means choosing better candidates to be cadres, and imposing a strict diet of politics and ideology. For others, the solution is stronger institutions, so that oversight and supervision is further centralised. Both agree that the crackdown should be intensified.

But some Party members doubt that draconian measures are the best approach. Punish the few and educate the many, one People’s Daily essay opined, urging easier rehabilitation for corrupt officials who admit their transgressions and want to reassume their duties. An account of a Henan official returning pilfered funds and accepting punishment was also presented in the paper as striking a balance between sanction and leniency. Forgiveness, these officials insist, may be a way forward.

how much accountability is too much?

How useful are assessments of officials’ conduct? One argument insists holding cadres accountable is essential, lest a lack of attention to duties and laziness result. But others wonder if strict accountability is debilitating, as some officials feel they are under constant supervision and neglect other duties. Accountability, in this view, should be a means to improving work, not an end: the real responsibilities of local cadres are to make visits, listen to residents, and conduct inquiries. Containing corruption is important, these advocates concede, but less of a priority: the Party can only secure its role if it addresses social concerns.

While these two camps argue about how to govern better, lower levels have embarked on their own local initiatives to fight graft and hold officials accountable according to local conditions. Shenyang is constructing a big data platform to identify corruption by tracking public funds in government projects. Chongqing is requiring cadres to report all kinship ties, which are then made available as an app to residents, who are urged to pass on anything they know of officials’ family connections.

Taizhou trial reforms

And some are pursuing innovation in a different direction. In recent weeks, the Jiangsu city of Taizhou has been experimenting with an early-warning system to aid district-level officials in identifying local discontent, and then evaluating them on their ability to stop it from growing. Instead of focusing on keeping cadres away from corruption, this approach looks to get governance back to the grassroots—assessing their performance solely on being more responsive officials.

The Taizhou experiment is doing what others are dodging: preventing corruption by letting localities trial reform. The central leadership is not there yet; with more months of stalemate, some officials might well wish it had been.


Zheng Jun 郑军 | Hubei Provincial Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform deputy director

Zheng also serves as director of the Suizhou, Hubei Discipline Inspection Commission. Inspections, he argues, serve Suizhou’s development by upgrading the economy and society cleanly and peacefully by eliminating local corruption. The fight against corruption, argues Zheng, must adopt an innovative work-style, including ‘turning the knife inward’ so that political standards are met by officials and anti-corruption investigators. He sees ideological consciousness and political loyalty as crucial, but inspectors need to ‘shoot the flies’ and punish the ‘small officials’ so that cadres and citizens become aware of their own social responsibilities.

Chen Xiang 陈翔 | Hailing district Party Secretary, Taizhou, Jiangsu

One of the new breed of front-line cadres who spend much of their working time away from their office. In inspecting projects and urging progress, Chen rarely refers to ideology or political slogans, and instead emphasises the quality of urban life and the need for industrial innovation. Local residents, says Chen, are often too anxious about small troubles, and advises them to reach outward, and leave insularity and old standards behind. He argues officials need to do the same.

He Wen 何文 | Hubei Municipal Organisation Department director, Ezhou

Cadres must focus on politics, argues He. Officials need to be ‘soldiers’ instead of ‘squires’, meeting the masses face-to-face, and assisting the downtrodden and disabled. In the current struggle, ideology should matter more to Party members than technocratic expertise or concentrating on economic growth.


5 dec 2018: 2018 anti-corruption efforts reviewed

27 nov 2018: Politburo meeting focuses on regulations on rural work and supervision rules

12 nov 2018: People’s Daily essay argues for political loyalty as key to building a stronger Party

6 nov 2018: People’s Daily commentary stresses that ‘strong politics’ is fundamental to discipline and supervision

5 nov 2018: Zhao Leji 赵乐际 CCDI head argues for strengthening discipline and supervision in financial institutions, enterprises and universities

1 nov 2018: NPC call for comment on Civil Servant Law highlights deeper politicisation of personnel

1 nov 2018: CCDI and NSC inspection results published

31 oct 2018: CCP Central Committee General Office issues opinions on upgrading disciplinary and supervisory network

10 oct 2018: Party inspections into poverty alleviation target localities, units and banks

25 sep 2018: CCDI and NSC announce 36,420 violations of Party provisions investigated

4 sep 2018: National Supervision Commission to have special task forces

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