Why is China’s battle against corruption grave and complex?

In this original article, Keith Lamb explains that, whilst China has scored enormous achievements in the battle against corruption, it still faces an uphill task in preventing new cases and rooting out existing ones.

Because the CPC is a Marxist party, Keith explains, with the historic mission to usher in socialism, it has to hold itself to higher standards than those political parties which operate within the framework of capitalism. However, when working towards socialism, utopian action will fail. Therefore, China took the pragmatic road by adopting a socialist market economy, which has advanced the forces of production and technology necessary for socialist development. However, this also creates a series of class and material contradictions that need to be navigated.

Achieving China’s goal of becoming a prosperous and modern socialist country by 2049, the author notes, not only requires a constant battle against corruption, but also provides part of the remedy for corruption.

Recently at the second plenary session of the 20th CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) it was noted that the corruption situation, in China remains grave and complex. The Communist Party of China (CPC) faces an uphill task in preventing new cases of corruption and rooting out existing ones.

In recent years, there have been enormous achievements in the battle against corruption at all levels of officialdom, which is encapsulated in the slogan “striking tigers and swatting flies.” In 2018, Lai Xiaomin the former state asset manager was executed for taking $277 million in bribes, and Sun Zhengcai, the former Chongqing Party Chief, was given life imprisonment for taking $27 million in bribes.

As of June 2022, a total of 4,516,000 corruption cases were handled by disciplinary authorities, and 4,439,000 people were punished for violating discipline. Just over a month after the closing of the 20th CPC National Congress, more than 10 officials who were suspected of severe violations of discipline and laws had turned themselves in.

Considering such successes, one may ask why the corruption situation still remains grave and complex. First, the massive anti-corruption campaign launched after the 18th National Congress was unprecedented in size, due to corruption becoming so deep-rooted. Consequently, considering the magnitude of the problem, no matter the achievements already accumulated, there is still much to do.

Corruption remains  the greatest threat to the CPC as it leads to resentment by citizens, who are represented by the Party and who the Party derives support from. It leads to inefficient and undemocratic governance as officials work for their own interests, which in turn goes against the goals of the CPC to guide China towards socialism characterized by increased equality.

Because the CPC is a Marxist party, with the aforementioned historic mission to usher in socialism, it has to hold itself to higher standards than most foreign political parties which operate within the framework of capitalism. For example, lobbying in the U.S., which places the power of capital above that of U.S. governing organs, is legal because it works within accepting the status quo, where what is good for capital is deemed as good for all.

In China this relationship is inverted. What is good for capital may not always be good for all. Often the narrow interests of capital are antithetical to the needs of society and even capital itself from a long-term perspective.

Speaking of the complex situation of corruption in China, conditioned by capital, one may wish to do away with this social force! However, when working towards socialism, utopian action will fail. One must work within the boundaries of the existing contradictions of material reality and social forces to achieve “utopian” destinations.

With this in mind, China took the pragmatic road by adopting a Socialist Market Economy, which has advanced the forces of production and technology necessary for socialist destinations. However, it also brings a corresponding series of material and class contradictions to be navigated through.

First, money is power, and market forces accumulate this power to those who, constrained by their world outlook, act undemocratically. The U.S. open political nature allows individual capitalists to wield this power freely. But, in China, this potentiality of capital, to personally affect politics, is wielded through bribery which cannot be tolerated.

The problem is there must be a close connection between governing systems and economic forces, in which capital plays a major role. How does one keep these forces together yet separated?

The CPC advocates for zero tolerance and harsh discipline which leads to officials not daring to be corrupt. In addition, the increased systematization of processes and oversight leads to officials not being able to be corrupt. For the purpose of ensuring the implementation of the plans made at the 20th CPC National Congress the CCDI will strengthen its political oversight

A second contradiction of unleashing market forces is that they can also corrupt ideologically and spiritually. Consumption “ideally” requires constant refreshment and reinforcement of “insatiable desires.” The greater these desires the more capital is needed to fulfil them which can strengthen the power of capital to corrupt.

Consequently, strict ideological discipline within the party is needed. Here, officials must be cognisant of not being swayed by unbridled hedonism and money worship, which the CPC is battling against, but be conscious of the Party’s mission to bring greater equality, prosperity, and harmony to all.

Achieving China’s structural goal of becoming a prosperous socialist country by 2049, not only requires a constant battle against corruption and ideological reinforcement to navigate the various contradictions, but it also provides part of the remedy for corruption.

Structural forces guiding corruption, on one extreme, is unfettered greed, which we see with the imprisonment and execution of the “tigers”. On the other extreme, there is the fear of scarcity, both now and in the future, which conditions petty corruption by the “flies”. These fears may be influenced by the market apportioning basics like housing, healthcare, and education unequally.

With China defeating absolute poverty, these structural inequalities are now in focus. Future successes in achieving greater equality will contribute to officials having no desire to become corrupt and further strengthen widespread support for China’s clean governing system which acts for the democratic interests of all.

10 thoughts on “Why is China’s battle against corruption grave and complex?”

  1. “Socialist market economy,” ha! Just compare how the Soviet Union industrialized in the 1930s – without creating a class of new capitalists, without extreme inequality of income, without forcing youth off the farm to find something on their own as migrant construction workers, migrant assembly workers for Foxconn, migrant delivery workers in the cities, migrant prostitutes – with how the CPC after 1977 unleashed capitalism with all these evils.

    You cannot turn capitalism on and expect to turn it off in a few decades like a faucet.

    1. I doubt that the CPC ever considers turning capitalism off, why would it given that capitalism in China has long since been subordinated in the service of meeting socialist objectives? The advantage that has enabled the CPC/PRC to now be further advanced in most socio-economic respects than Russia, is that of the CPC having consistently applied Marxist tenets and ideas to the governance and productivity of the PRC.

      1. Hi Taffy, I agree with this comment. It will be really interesting to see what happens from now until 2049 when the CPC are aiming to start a socialist epoch.

        Having said that, 2049 will only be the official start of socialism. I’ve read some Chinese academics predict that socialism will continue on for 500 years until communism can be established. So how socialism looks in 2049 will be radically different to how it looks in 2549.

        Though it’s hard to predict the future, judging by current trends and goals of the CPC, I imagine that by 2049 China’s healthcare system will be roughly equal with that of an advanced Western European state. Basic facilities for childcare such as education will have been improved significantly making it more desirable and economical to have at least two or three children.

        House prices or the ability to have a home will be within the range of all. The labouring working class will have shrunken and the middle class (i.e. the working class that uses their thinking labour) will have expanded greatly. Wages will have risen significantly and the working day will decrease leading to more personal development time.

        Public infrastructure, will have been greatly expanded and due to an increase in a sharing economy the need for personal items like car ownership will be diminished. Increasingly, life opportunities will be less dictated by living in a Chinese metropolis like Shanghai or Beijing.

        Once these achievements have been established, which will lead to innovation coming from more people, I expect that the current market model will need gradual tinkering with so that the market rewards are more democratically distributed.

    2. Hi Charles, I agree that there are massive dangers in markets, which is precisely what this article (somewhat diplomatically) warns against.

      China also followed the Soviet Union’s example because it was a successful development model of that era. However, I would contend that it was essentially using “feudal” methods for socialist goals in that peasants were tied to the land and the surplus for the industrialisation of the cities was then extracted from their labor.

      This method brought about its own contradictions, which led to the collapse of the USSR and predatory capitalism, bringing calamity to Russia. If the word “evil” is appropriate then this would be a more appropriate example of its use.

      China has adapted its economy to pragmatically deal with contradiction emerging from its previous economic system. Now rather than using “feudal” methods for surplus extraction it uses “market” methods.

      Unlike, feudalism and capitalism this is done consciously without adopting the universalising ideology of a feudal or capitalist epoch that naturalizes each respective economic system and solidifies the class relations that are built from them.

      Predominantly, peasants have not been forced off the land. They enter the factories because they have material and consumer desires, which their earnings deliver. Some might class it as exploitation but it is nevertheless preferred in comparison to being equally poor. Furthermore, one should read accounts of nineteenth century England to understand what real capitalist production line exploitation is about. Nowhere in China are there massive slum housing districts or mass homelessness.

      Had China not opened up and used market forces to develop, it’s likely that mass dissatisfaction would have brought the country to a USSR-style collapse as workers looked towards Western models. Without the technology China has acquired and developed through market forces, foreign interference and its corresponding chaos would have been more likely.

      In many ways, the workers have made gains materially but the argument can be made that they also have sacrificed themselves on the production lines. Utopian it is not, but pragmatically sacrificing their sweat on the factory line, in the short term, is preferable to sacrificing their blood on the battlefield.

      Looking at the policies of the CPC, it is clear the desired destination is not capitalist restoration. Policies have been made both democratically and pragmatically. Monopoly industries remain in public control. Big tech magnates are disciplined. There is a conscious plan to upgrade China’s workforce along with their earning capacities. Through increased AI and mechanisation the role of assembly labour will be diminished. Basic welfare is all being upgraded.

      The pattern of Chinese development is also unlike a capitalist country. If you go to a small city in Xinjiang, today, or any rural location, far from the capital, you will find an equality of development and socialised transport systems. This equality of development was something I did not see or imagine in 2004 when I first went to China.

      The path towards creating a socialist society is not guaranteed, which is why corruption must be tackled, party members must remain ideologically disciplined, and there must be constant measurable steps towards socialism, such as the recent defeat of absolute poverty.

      China’s policies and methods may grind with our utopian socialist goals. However, socialism cannot be imagined into existence. Marxists are conscious of this fact in that their methods deals with the real historical and material realities before them.

      Unless we engage pragmatically and consciously with these realities, such as capital and markets, we will be guided by them rather than have the ability to guide them.

  2. You slap the “feudal” label on Soviet socialism; it reveals more about you than about the Soviet Union.

    “Monopoly industries remain in public control.” The central state-owned firms have sold five to fifteen percent of their equity to investors on the stock market. Naturally, investors invest for dividends and stock price appreciation. You imply that China has a private capitalist sector and a socialist sector. No, China has a private capitalist sector and a state sector all run for profit.

    1. Hi Charles, the “feudal” was written like “this” because I meant the term loosely. You’re right in that profit is a motive of the market and as a reward it is meant to stimulate the forces of production and state industries are run on this motive too (and get bailed out by state run banks). Looking at the public infrastructure projects, such as the high speed railway, many of them run at a loss (I don’t know if that is a cause for socialist celebration?). If the profit motive was a concern then certainly the West of China would not have been connected. The fact is, this public infrastructure provides a public and environmental good beyond profits.

      In addition, when it comes to China’s BRI many projects are not expected to make a return for decades, they are run outside of the typical profit cycle. But look I think it’s a bit of a straw man to argue that making profits or not is always inherently bad/good considering where we are in history. It’s about how the profits are reinvested and who controls this reinvestment, as well as who sets the rules of the market.

      At the end of the day, I’m replying to your messages not to be antagonistic or because I would consider my point of view eternally right above yours. I want to learn from everyone. Consequently, assuming you support an independent China and have the long term wellbeing of the Chinese people at heart, if you can give a better vision for China, with concrete examples, that takes into account the pragmatics of China’s complex internal and external geopolitical position, along with the failures of other socialist states, like the USSR, then I would be very interested to read it. In addition, if China’s direction is faulty what concrete measures would you take to correct the current situation?

  3. You try to have it both ways with your scare quotes.

    You also wrote, ‘Now rather than using “feudal” methods for surplus extraction it uses “market” methods.’ Why the scare quotes about market methods? They are exactly what the PRC uses. You left out socialist methods – no scare quotes needed. I outlined one such method in two of my books, No Rich, No Poor and The Hollow Colossus.

    1. I got a copy of the book. It’s very readable and a good description of the problems of capital especially in America. I really like the way you illustrated some of the contradictions of capital such as hampering tech progress.

      However, I do not see your recommendations as being workable for China at present. First, China, especially in the 1970s was relatively weak and faced U.S. aggression (which it still does today). It had to find a way to catch up quickly and the market as well as accommodation with the U.S., for better or worse, was the chosen method. The invitation for foreign capital to come to China today is still larges an invitation to swap labor power for technology which China views as essential to building socialism.

      Second, the problem with China is that the American description doesn’t match the reality on the ground in China or the sentiments of the people there. You’re right some people in China do long for a simpler time when there was less hustle. However, the vast majority are overjoyed at the material improvements in their lives that previous economic models were not delivering.

      Watching the Western media it often seems like there is mass disapproval of the governing system but the reverse is true. Generally, I’ve found the non-English speaking working class and peasantry to be more supportive of the CPC than the wealthier middle class. When my Mandarin improved and I was able to communicate on a deeper level this surprised me but read on and it becomes easy to understand why.

      The peasants have not had their land robbed from them and in fact they could continue farming just as before. However, usually, they follow a two pronged strategy where one child will work in the city (to earn money for commodities previously out of their reach) while another will stay on the land. If this is not the case then their fields will be rented out. If their land is left fallow for too long then the government will take it back.

      From my own experiences in 2005 I witnessed old people engaged in back breaking farm labour. No electrification in parts of the countryside. Minus 10
      (in Hebei) and no adequate heating. Holes in the roof of some houses. Mud floors. Many people owning at most two changes of clothes. Trips to the local town every month to take a public shower. The toilet being the field in the countryside (not nice in the middle of winter) or in the town an open sewer where we would all communally squat half naked. No wifi. There was still some malnutrition, though it was rare. Today these problems of serious poverty have been eradicated (I would have said impossible in 2005).

      In 2005 the cities’ air was filthy as you rightly point out because capital could profit at the expense of the environment (this counts as serious corruption). It seemed an impossible problem to solve. From around 2012ish there have been incredible transformations of the environment. Unlike America wages have been rising and considering the price of goods, being much cheaper in China, their lower wages go much further.

      Education is extremely affordable and advancements in the welfare state continue (though they are still inadequate in my opinion). House prices are too high but like medical care if one was to criticise the CPC for this you would be preaching to the choir. The question of improving this is not about “if” but “how”.

      To call China a socialist economy would be wrong. It has a Marxist government that seeks to guide China towards socialism by 2049 and then communism. What this early socialist society will entail as of yet we can’t say for certain and my hunch (just like my hunch about China not being able to eradicate poverty in 2005) is that it will fall short of my own utopian expectations but if it can consistently make improvements towards this epoch and continue after 2049 then this will be better than anywhere else in the world.

      The changes I’ve seen since 2005 have convinced me that capitalist restoration needn’t be the end destination, which I had, like yourself, assumed to be a certainty considering what I saw back then.

      There is a battle in China within the party and society in general. Consequently, socialism must still be fought for, it’s not a given. On one side there is capital which seeks to corrupt society and the party. On the other side the party seeks to coopt capital, then there are the hundreds of millions of party members and citizens who are schooled in Marxism and expect socialism to be implemented in good time. To do so the battle against corruption must remain strong.

  4. Hi Charles, Honestly, I have never once seen scare quotes on an official PRC document. I have seen descriptive words in quotes by individual authors of editorials who don’t agree with the commonly held view parroted by other sources. For example: the problems of “genocide and slavery” in China.

    Other than quoting speech, I sometimes use quotes in the same above mentioned way, as well as for irony, for slang, and sometimes because a meaning is fuzzy or new.

    In this case of feudalism equating one complex system with one word, to describe a different era, I humbly admit doesn’t do a system descriptive justice. However, I stand by my claim that feudal techniques for surplus extraction had peasants tied to the land and so did collectivisation.

    I do not judge the technique in China or Russia as positive or negative but a pragmatic move. In fact, both states had plans for a greater role of the market and capital after their respective revolutions but market socialism was deemed unfeasible at the time.

    Anyway I’m getting off topic. It’s good to have some feedback from someone who writes and understands China and I will will try to get a copy of your book. Would you be so kind as to outline your method with relevance to the Chinese experience?

  5. China’s fight against corruption is very important. That struggle makes China even more competent as one of the main engines in the struggle center of global peace.

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