Jan 17, 2017 03:51 PM

Editorial: Plans for China’s Anti-Corruption ‘Super Agency’ Put to Test

Four years into its anti-graft campaign that has netted hundreds of officials — from high-level “tigers” down to low-level “flies” — China is now taking a step toward beefing up institutions underpinning its war on corruption. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party organ spearheading the crackdown, at a key meeting earlier this month highlighted reforms to the overall supervisory system planned for 2017. A key part of it involves creating a national supervisory commission with more centralized authority and a corresponding national law to give it legal teeth. This commission will be granted powers to interrogate and detain suspects, freeze assets and, in some cases, punish offenders. In late December, the national legislator approved regional trial runs of the proposed reforms in Beijing and the provinces of Shanxi and Zhejiang.

The move, which aims to shake up the system overseeing the country’s vast bureaucracy and set up a powerful national anti-corruption institution, is an important component of China’s complex political reform process. Under the pilot program, a four-tier supervisory system will be set up at the national, provincial, city and county levels. Existing graft-busting units under the central and local governments and prosecutors’ offices will be consolidated under this new authority, and its mandate includes investigating all public officeholders and civil servants, irrespective of whether they are a member of the party or not.

The reform will lead to organizational reshuffles in various government departments, bringing significant changes to their working methods and duties. Since the party started to clean up its ranks in 2012, hundreds of officials have been found guilty of bribery and dereliction of duty. However, as the campaign goes forward, concerns have been raised about whether the same momentum can be sustained. Setting up the supervisory commission is vital to building institutional arrangements needed to wage a more-sustained war on corruption.

But this complex reform push will no doubt face challenges. Beijing and other provinces included in the pilot program must carefully monitor the effects of the adjustments they are making to their local supervisory systems and adjust the pace of change to ensure the reform meets its desired goals. Policymakers must pay special attention to three key aspects:

First, the reshuffling and consolidation of different departments should be carried out delicately to ensure seamless integration in terms of organizational functions and personnel. This is the foundation of the reform, but also the stickiest part of it. Efforts to centralize control will be met with resistance. It requires persistent effort and tact to push forward the institutional consolidation process to improve the efficiency and capacity of anti-corruption work. Meanwhile, there has to be a clear delineation of power and responsibilities within the supervisory commission.

Next, the reform requires a strategy to promote effective communication and coordination between the supervisory commission and other judicial departments and policymaking bodies. According to the reform plan, the supervisory agencies will be set up and overseen by legislative bodies, known as people’s congresses. But a protocol for the legislatures to oversee supervisory agencies and to coordinate with them needs to be fleshed out during the pilot program. Developing a coordination system between the supervisory commission, local prosecutors’ offices and courts is another complicated issue. Ironing out these thorny issues will pave the way for future reform.

Finally, the changes have just started, and they must be pushed forward at the proper pace and must be done in accordance with the rule of law, so that it can indeed create a law-abiding society — its main goal. The central government is mulling drafting a national law on supervision, which would be the best way to cement the progress made through this timely change.

Each step in the reform process should be based on relevant changes to the law. The small step of reforming the supervisory system will inevitably involve changes to many related laws, such as the criminal proceedings law, and laws governing the organizational structure of the state prosecutor’s office, legislature and government systems. There is also an ongoing debate on whether the supervisory system reform will require amendments to China’s constitution as it will lead to major changes to the structure of political institutions by installing a new supervisory system that runs parallel to the administrative and judicial systems. Reaching a consensus on the need to amend supporting laws to reflect policy changes will remove uncertainties overshadowing the reform push.

The new overarching anti-corruption “super agency” will centralize the authority now scattered among different departments. But a key test of the reform will be ensuring that adequate checks and balances are in place to oversee the functioning of this umbrella body. We’ve seen dozens of cases where graft busters themselves have turned corrupt. Adequate safeguards must be put in place to prevent this.

The reform can only deliver the desired outcomes when issues such as the clear and transparent delineation of power and the establishment of effective coordination channels are dealt with. Like all other reforms to China’s system of governance, the supervisory system should be set up based on the ground rule that power is exercised within the framework of the law. When changes are rolled out nationwide, the supervisory commission is expected to become a powerful and efficient graft buster, and its success will serve as a blueprint for future political reform practices. The pilot program may just be a curtain raiser for reforms touching the very heart of China’s political system.

Hu Shuli is the chief editor of Caixin Media.


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