Beijing, China – Corruption reaches deep into China’s political system, and the Chinese public knows it. The latest proof came from President Hu Jintao in his speech to more than 2,000 delegates at the opening of the most recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing this November.
“Combating corruption and promoting political integrity is a major political issue. If we fail to handle it, it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” Hu said.
The Chinese president called on leading officials to “both exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their family and staff”.
The year 2012 saw a number of corruption scandals in China, from revelations of the vast wealth held by Premier Wen Jiabao to the downfall of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman.
Shanghai-based painter Zhang Bingjian is one of many artists who has made a creative stand against corruption, using his artwork to raise the issue and encourage public discussion of it. He has hundreds of paintings in his “Hall of Fame” of corrupt officials who have already been sentenced.
“If the government has the determination to attack corruption, they should take the lead in the situation.“
– Hu Xingdou, Beijing Institute of Technology
“It doesn’t matter if they have been found guilty of corruption for ten yuan or one million. This is just to make people think, seeing how it will end and making them reflect more,” Zhang said. “This is the real power of art.”
Zhang recounts an example from his own childhood. Between the ages of 6 and 16, he suffered during the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long political campaign lead by Mao Zedong that result in “ten years of catastrophe” as millions of people died in a national binge of self-destruction.
During that time, Zhang was always told that US children were hungry and had no heating in the winter, and could barely use a match to keep warm. That was the version he believed for years, until he moved to the University of South Carolina to study a master’s degree in visual arts – and learned that a turkey cost roughly three dollars.
“That period of time really helped me to see from a distance and have a vision much more clear of my country,” said Zhang, who added that he did not want to be remembered only for his anti-corruption artwork – just a small part of his portfolio.
The paintings on the wall swell with rosy pinks, a palette pulled directly from China’s 100-yuan bill that still bears Mao’s visage.
They are made in the south of China, where millions of copies of paintings are made with cheap labour and materials. “For me this is a way of showing the whole process of Chinese economy exports from provinces like Shenzhen, Guangzhou or Zhejiang,” said Zhang.
China has recently been placed number 80 out of the 176 countries in Transparency International’s index of state corruption. The placing shows that this issue will remain on the table for the term of China’s newest Communist Party leaders.
“This year China just ranks in the middle, better than other countries like Russia [ranked at 133],” said Professor Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology.
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“China is not the worst. The ranking shows that the country has done a lot in anti-corruption over these years, but still not enough.”
Denmark is the least corrupt nation, according to thre index, followed by Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Singapore. At the tail end sits Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan and Myanmar.
In order to improve transparency, Hu’s answer is very clear. “I think the first step is to improve [the] freedom of press, strengthening the ability of public monitoring via media,” a process that he expects to see in the next few years.
Hu went further, saying that the next generation of officials from the Party’s Central Committee should take the initiative to publish their personal assets. “If the government has the determination to attack corruption, they should take the lead in the situation,” he said.
Wang Qishan was chosen as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of China’s Communist Party during November’s congress. He also belongs to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.
Wang called on “the party’s discipline inspection organisations at various levels to strengthen institutional prevention and punishment of corruption,” in a recent corruption prevention seminar.
Professor Hu agreed that Wang was heading in the right direction.
“I think Wang Qishan has done the heavy work in anti-corruption, and has launched a wave of anti-corruption culture. It’s a promising sign, but we want to see that the government handles the problem from the roots, and not just on the surface,” explained Hu.
“Nothing is impossible to resolve,” said Hu. “What the government needs is determination to resolve it.”
“China has taken a very important step towards the uncovering and prevention of corruption”
– Liu Qingling, Tsinghua University
One of the most shocking reports of corruption came from the Bank of China. A 67-page report released in June 2008 showed that 18,000 corrupt officials and employees of state-owned enterprises had fled abroad or gone into hiding since the mid-1990s.
In total, these officials or employees are suspected of taking around 800bn yuan ($128bn) to such countries as the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.
Liu Qingling, an administrator of Tsinghua University, published an article in the Global Times newspaper, saying that an anti-corruption drive must be powerful because it “is rooted in the need for a favourable domestic environment for China’s further rise and because the ruling party of China is well aware of the dangers corruption poses”.
According to Liu, in the internet era, “China has taken a very important step towards the uncovering and prevention of corruption,” as government institutions open their own Weibo accounts, some of which are dedicated to the fight against impropriety.
But it seems these actions are the first steps on a long road. In December, Li Chuncheng, the deputy secretary of the party’s Sichuan Provincial Committee, was removed from office following suspicions of “serious violations” and bribery during large-scale provincial construction projects.
The question remains as to whether Li, who served in the Sichuan Provincial Government for more than 14 years – and those like him – will continue to face individual reprimands, with no broader ramifications, or if the fresh faces of China’s government are both willing and able to create real and significant institutional changes that will combat corruption for the long term.