May 07, 2014 04:03 PM

Taking the Next Step in Fight against Graft

China's crackdown on corruption is widening. Investigators are also unearthing more dirt in individual cases. As more officials fall from grace, the number of political secretaries found to be as corrupt as their bosses has become a talking point.

To root out corruption, it is not enough to merely cut off the tumor. We must also clean out its immediate environment to prevent the disease from spreading.

Recently, the international online edition of the People's Daily republished a 1990 speech by President Xi Jinping, then a high-ranking official in Fujian Province, in which he warned political secretaries against making use of their bosses' power for their own gain.

In the wake of recent scandals involving political secretaries, the republication of the speech was timely. It is also worth noting that provinces and regions including Yunnan, Guangxi, Hebei and Shandong have abolished the secretarial posts serving senior officials. The move is no coincidence.

As Xi himself pointed out, a secretary's work is important and demanding. They must provide assistance, but not interfere, demonstrate independence of mind yet not defy their bosses. Thanks to the tough training they get, many secretaries become good leaders themselves. However, a good number have not only failed to perform their basic duties but even turned corrupt. Some did so behind their bosses' backs while others colluded with their crooked bosses. Some notorious examples were Chen Xitong's secretary, Chen Jian; Chen Liangyu's secretary, Qin Yu; Gu Junshan's secretary, Qiao Xijun; and Liu Tienan's secretary, Wang Yong.

Their corruption stems from the same rotten core: unfettered power. To curb graft, we must rein in power. Ultimately, China needs a society built on the rule of law. For now, the more practicable goal of reform is to decentralize power, to put in place some checks and balances for more transparency and accountability.

Provincial governments that have abolished secretarial posts are not just trying to reduce corruption among secretaries. They are also targeting the senior officials these secretaries serve. By cutting out a layer of people who can act to facilitate bribery or a transfer of benefits, the authorities are hoping to isolate the senior officials, who will find it less easy to cheat and abuse their power without an assistant at their beck and call.

Ultimately, however, the problem lies with the system of centralized power without oversight. Advanced societies today adopt the rule of law and a system of representative democracy as their framework. The legislature passes the laws, which are carried out by the executive branch. The judiciary then monitors both the legislative and executive branches, with help from an independent and competitive media. Honesty in office need not rest on personal integrity and self-discipline alone.

Commendably, the Communist Party's 18th Central Committee has pledged to build a comprehensive system for the healthy exercise of power, by ensuring the separation and co-ordination of decision-making power, administrative power and the power of oversight. The experience of other countries may also be studied.

The party champions the ideal of democratic centralism, which tends to descend into autocratic centralism. Breaking the habits of an authoritarian past is not easy. China has lived through thousands of years of rule by an emperor, military rule during the war years and decades of a planned economy.

By denying senior officials a personal assistant, these officials may be forced to have more direct interactions with their subordinates, which would be a welcome change. Yet, officials may well become even more autocratic, given there is scant supervision of power.

Comprehensive reforms are the only way to root out corruption. Over the past year, the State Council, the country's cabinet, has initiated legal changes in administrative approvals, government budgeting and procurement, all of which will help curb graft. Empowering civic groups will also improve the people's ability to check any abuse of power. More importantly, political reforms must proceed as promised in the Central Committee's report, to realize a true-to-form people's democracy.

As case after case of government corruption show, the family members and associates of a corrupt official are often also tainted. China needs institutions that can prevent their misbehavior. Over the years, the government has issued various directives and guidelines urging attention to this, including a 2004 guideline issued by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that warned the family and co-workers of senior officials from leveraging on their influence for personal gain.

The alarm of such danger was first sounded more than 20 years ago. Today, as the government fights to clean up the government, there is need for a systemic change.

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code