Exclusive: Monthly data detail China's often soft-handed anti-corruption campaign

Power in a cage?

Exclusive: Monthly data detail China's often soft-handed anti-corruption campaign


Three years ago to the month, Xi Jinping gave what was, by all accounts, a pretty unremarkable speech.

The Chinese Communist Party’s new head honcho said he was pleased not at all with the conduct of his fellow cadres, according to state media, and let them know they needed to straighten up and fly right, outlining an austere code of conduct that sounded an awful lot like the kind espoused by his predecessor and other top leaders before him.

The thing was, Xi actually planned to do something about it—and setting aside questions about underlying goals and ulterior motives, he did.

On December 18, state news agency Xinhua published the latest towering totals of cadres investigated and punished under the banner of the austerity and anti-graft regulation now known as the Eight-point Code. Since virtually all officials are party members, those totals concern a vital front in the administration’s broader anti-corruption campaign.

Yet coverage of the headline figures gives little context for how the battle is progressing, or why. Luckily, monthly reports about the Eight-point Code are released as image files by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

CER has collected and transcribed these files to build a unique corruption database dating back to September of 2013 from which developments and trends in the fight against graft can be scried.

Based on the Eight-point Code data, officials appear to be receiving more serious punishment for breaking party rules, even as the number of investigations conducted has steadily fallen. And while more lower-level officials are being disciplined in absolute terms, it also appears that the likelihood of severe punishment varies substantially with cadre rank and type of violation.

Other official data available on corruption cases in China suggest that, outside of high-profile cases, the crackdown hasn’t really resulted in a substantial share of allegedly guilty officials being handed over to the courts for prosecution. Whether this is cause for concern, though, is a matter of perspective.

Define "discipline"

The Eight-point Code reports delve quickly into party arcana by grouping the punishments that result from investigations into two categories: "Organizational processing" and "party and government discipline". Neither of those measures has to end with criminal prosecution, but the latter can result in officials being thrown out of the party and potentially into a courtroom.

Since nearly all officials are party members, this is where real punishment lies for cadres high and low—tigers and flies, in party parlance. At least, theoretically.

"Most of the cases in [the Eight-point Code] data will be flies who have committed minor infractions," said Victor Shih, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego’s 21st Century China Program. Shih said those subjected to organizational processing "in most cases are not receiving any harsh punishment."

Party/state discipline, meanwhile, encompasses a variety of punishments, most of which don’t seem to inflict lasting damage on a cadre’s career. "Even the the party punishment a lot of times is just 'jiguo'—a bad mark on your record," Shih said. "Plenty of officials that have bad marks on their record have been promoted."

Former Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong is one such success story: He was dismissed from his position by the party in April 2003 for the municipal government's botched handling of the capital's SARS epidemic under his watch. In 2008 he was compelled to resign from the governorship of Shanxi province after an illegal landfill in the province caused a deadly mudslide that killed hundreds. Today, he is a member of the CCP’s Central Committee.

Meng’s case is far from unique among those disciplined by the party. The CCDI doesn’t normally release figures on the specific disciplinary measures used each year, but in 2005 and 2006 its annual work reports gave a basic breakdown that showed how lenient such discipline can often be.

In both years, "party and government discipline" meant only some form of warning for more than two-thirds of those punished, while a far smaller share was handed over to the courts.

Quantitative, qualitative

That is not to say that the campaign has had no tangible effects. Fu Hualing, an associate dean of the Faculty of Law at Hong Kong University whose research focuses on China’s criminal justice system, said that while it was difficult to measure its actual impact on corruption, the campaign's scale and rigorous enforcement made it more widely felt than previous, shorter crackdowns.

"In a way, people who are not investigated are taking the rules much more seriously," Fu said. He granted that transactional bribery done for a specific purpose had likely moved deeper into the shadows, but added that forbidding gatherings like extravagant, costly banquets had substantially cut down on opportunities for junior cadres to nurture professional connections through gifts of cash.

"It probably would be too cynical to say it’s simply displacement—that people are just paying in other ways," Fu said. "There are only so many ways that you can pay."

The figures from the CCDI are easier to measure, though not without their own bookkeeping quirks. For the three headline totals that receive widespread coverage on the mainland each month, the cumulative totals to date provided by the CCDI are roughly 1-2% larger than the sums reached by just adding up the standalone monthly figures.

But the data also follow seasonal patterns, like an annual Spring Festival dip in January-February followed by a gradual recovery, as well as an end-of-year peak. So while the usual caveats for official data still apply, the monthly figures do show signs of being based in reality.

Fly swatting

The Eight-point Code data also make it clear that those disciplined at the lowest rungs of officialdom outnumber their superiors by orders of magnitude: More than 55,000 are from the branch and township level. Compare that to almost 4,000 the next rung up (county and division), close to 500 above that (prefecture and department), and just ten at the provincial and ministerial level.

Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, said that the party leadership generally wants to foster an environment that better deters corruption without compromising its ability to carry out policy initiatives.

That has meant not giving the majority of higher-level officials reason to feel threatened and oppose the crackdown. "Unless it’s absolutely necessary, they don’t touch any key figures in the provinces or the state council and politburo," Bo said. "Leadership stability is still the goal."

That attitude may also be reflected in how the severity of punishment at each level differs.

The rate of cadres disciplined per investigation is 100% at the province and ministry level, but such cases are rare. Rates for the lowest two levels of cadre average closer to 70% and 60% for the campaign as a whole—but those have risen over time, as has the overall frequency of party and government discipline.

Fu said that such gradual growth in discipline rates likely reflected growing pressure from the party center on local CDI offices to crack down harder. But the data also suggest that not all violations are viewed as equally vile by the party’s watchdog.

Vices of choice

The monthly data from the Eight-point Code campaign break down investigations and their consequences with unprecedented detail. But the unsavory practices included in this basket of vice vary from year to year as the central office introduces new categories and removes or combines existing ones.

For instance, "violation of work discipline" began as part of "other" in 2013, but was broken out into its own category in 2014 and quickly shot to the top of the charts.

Before it was excised in January, the category included a laundry list of minor infractions, such as "shirking responsibility, unauthorized absences, playing computer games at work, chatting, trading stocks, watching things like movies, drinking oneself senseless during the work week, and bungling work," according to the party newspaper People's Daily.

But while such violations still account for almost 30% of cadres processed, they make up a much smaller share of those disciplined.

Ryan Manuel, research fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World at Australian National University, said the lower discipline rates for violations like improper car use lent credence to the idea that the Eight-point Code granted the party more flexibility in terms of holding cadres accountable for minor violations without necessarily forcing expulsion or criminal prosecution.

But recent monthly data suggest that the kid gloves may be coming off, even if discipline still often amounts to a slap on the wrist. The introduction in January of a high-discipline-rate category covering activities including "irregular payments" coincided with a general upward trend visible in most categories’ discipline rates for the year to date.

Judgment calls

The Eight-point Code data suggest a variety of possibilities for the state of the party's anti-corruption drive. Manuel said the data "supports the hypothesis that the pace of the corruption crackdown has slowed in quantity, but that the investigators are having more success in gaining prosecutions."

Bo suggested the latest uptick could also stem from a delayed reaction, with cases initiated at a previous peak of the campaign only now emerging due to limited capacity of the departments concerned: "It might be a staff issue, a bottleneck at disciplinary institutions—too many cases to handle, so the process takes longer than before."

Both he and Shih also noted that the upswing in discipline might alternatively be the result of increased political infighting at the local level as cadres begin to weaponize the party’s disciplinary machinery. Shih hypothesized an initial period of armistice might have given way to more frequent accusations.

"So in the beginning it was kind of like, ‘Oh, let’s all be nice to each other,’" Shih said, "and over time as one person accuses the other, you’re like, ‘Well why should I be nice if you’re accusing me?’"

Issues of scale

Infighting aside, most of the 7.4 million cadres working in official posts tallied in last year’s party headcount have gone unpunished.

According to official estimates from the CCDI, the 232,000 officials disciplined in 2014 were equivalent to 3.14% of that total, and those who were then expelled from the party and handed over to China’s legal system amounted to only 0.16% of the public workforce, or 12,000 people.

In fact, in the course of the CDI’s anti-corruption activities over the last decade, the share of total cadres disciplined who were then transferred to judicial authorities has only ever broken into double digits one time—a decade ago, under the tenure of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.

But more and more people are going straight to the party to have wrongs righted, encouraged in no small part by changes that empowered the party’s disciplinary apparatus at the expense of China’s legal system.

Beside the law

The Chinese government institution ostensibly charged with combating corruption is the anti-embezzlement and bribery administration of the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP), special branches of which worked together with the CDI to actively prosecute graft until the early 90s.

But in 1992 the party decided the latter would take the lead on fighting corruption. That arrangement has remained true during the latest campaign, with party discipline rising far more and more quickly than individuals prosecuted for graft by the SPP.

Were one to take the party at its word, this trend might be a welcome development in preventative regulation: In the wake of retired security tsar Zhou Yongkang’s sentencing to life in prison in June, state media stressed that the anti-corruption campaign was fueled by the party’s "stricter-than-law disciplinary policy," rather than prevalence of criminal activity.

But Hong Kong University’s Fu, who in 2011 published a paper on CDI's accumulation of power, said that it was actually quite difficult to trigger a formal investigation because officials at the discipline commission don’t have the capacity to investigate everything. "You have to be serious enough that it probably as a general principle involves criminal law in disciplinary matters," he said.

In fact, a number of the Eight-point Code's categories have clear counterparts in criminal law, but are described using the party’s own terms. That helps prevent any possible interference from the legal system, and helps explain why only about one in twenty cadres disciplined ended up in court in 2014.

"It’s an indication that they don’t even want to use the party’s [disciplinary] mechanism to punish the members who have committed certain offenses," Fu said.

Contempt of court

This turn to the party for justice is evident in the growing millions of petitions accepted and transferred to the party’s disciplinary body every year by petition reception centers run by the Office of Letters and Calls, which form the basis for most CDI inspections, according to an in-depth study of three local CDI offices by Li Fenfei and Deng Jinting at Renmin University's Law Center, published online in September in the Journal of Contemporary China.

Neil Thomas, Morrison Scholar at the Australian Centre on China in the World, has studied China’s petition system extensively, and estimated it likely received around 10-15 million petitions every year nationwide, in addition to millions more fended off by toughs local governments send to intercept petitioners attempting to reach higher authorities.

"There’s massive undercapacity for [petition] work throughout he system," Neil said. "No one really likes to prioritize people complaining about them, particularly if they’re going to get in serious trouble about it."

Nor is the petition system free from corruption: On December 5, the second-in-command at the national Office of Letters and Calls, Xu Jie, was sentenced to 13 years for taking bribes to alter petition data and delete petition records. Of course, it had been the party’s central discipline officers who caught Xu and handed him over to the courts—though only after he’d been expelled from the party.

Power uncaged

In January of 2013, state media quoted Xi as telling a plenary meeting of the CCDI that power "should be restricted by the cage of regulations."

But rather than creating an independent regulatory body or giving the courts more autonomy, the party leadership is further centralizing authority in the hands of a political organ subject to many of the same vulnerabilities as the cadres it polices, according to Li and Deng, authors of the Renmin University study.

Because CDI superiors have near total control over the promotion of their subordinates, local case leaders are free to dismiss information in the petitions they receive as insubstantial or informally reserve them for later consideration—usually indefinitely, according to the authors' observations. A 2013 case list from a CDI in one of the unnamed cities from the study showed only 3% of petition reports accepted by the office were formally investigated.

One case leader told the Renmin scholars when a case concerns a large number of officials, sensitive interests, or the investigation could affect the local leadership and social stability, petition information "may be dismissed or suspended to protect the Party concerns."

When a suspect is detained for questioning, though, the ability to impose unregulated and potentially indefinite isolation allows CDI interrogators to take any measures they deem necessary to extract a confession. As one of the CDI officials explained over dinner in April of 2014: "the Party organization is like the parents of the Party members and ... it is thus understandable and normal for your parents to scold or beat you."

Li and Deng expressed concern that in the long term, without serious reform, corruption could creep upward through the commission, infecting higher-level offices until the entire CDI system becomes totally ineffective. Should that day arrive, though, it will take more than statistics to suss out the reality of the situation.

"Suppose I'm an observer seeing more cases coming up," Victoria University’s Bo said. "The perception may be that the system is getting more corrupt, because if I see fewer cases, maybe I think it’s clean. And the perception could be wrong, because if you take out more corrupt officials, then you have a cleaner system."

And if the supply of corrupt officials is infinite?

"If that’s the case, the solution that might be easier is if you just select clean officials and put them in jail," he said, laughing. "Protect them, and use nuclear weapons on the rest." 

Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)