Tigers and flies: Fighting corruption China-style, and some lessons for Africa

President Xi’s anti-corruption drive has had 182,000 officials reportedly punished for corruption and abuse of power since he came into office.

CHINA has been in a bad place lately, with a stock market crash and devaluation of the yuan, policy makers have been trying to grasp every lever they can find to stabilise things. And the effect of all these jitters is being felt in Africa as China is the continent’s leading trade partner – the slowdown in China means lower export revenues and a currency plunge in many African countries.

But even as China tries to put itself back on course, Africa could learn a thing or two from the Asian giant’s handling of corruption. Though not enough to banish China’s image as a corruption-fuelled nation, it’s still sufficient to enable to stand out for its ruthlessness.

In Africa, an estimated $148 billion is lost due to corruption annually, according to the African Union. If as little as 10% of this money were to be recovered, then approximately $14.8 billion could be available to fund development in Africa.

Over the years, China has had to deal with corruption scandals of epic proportions that have involved even the most senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party.  This has led to President Xi Jinping embarking on a massive anti-corruption campaign, aimed at fighting both the “tigers and flies”  referring to both high and low ranking officials who are corrupt. 

President Xi’s anti-corruption drive has had 182,000 officials reportedly punished for corruption and abuse of power since he came into office. You’d be hard pressed to find even 100 public officials punished for corruption in some African countries.

The Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, an internal watchdog on corruption and graft in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, was set up to deal with internal corruption within the Communist Party’s structures.  

No paper tiger

Unlike many such failed initiatives by African political parties, the CCDI is not just a paper tiger. Even the once “untouchable” Bo Xilai, former member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Political Bureau stood open trial on charges of taking bribes,  embezzlement and abuse of power,  and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.

But apart from the naming and shaming of a few sacrificial lamps fingered for corruption; allegations of corruption by government officials have generally fizzled out with little or no convictions of the culprits in Africa. 

Bold steps need to be taken if the scourge of corruption is to be dealt with.  For instance, a pilot programme launched by China’s political watchdog makes it mandatory for all newly promoted officials to disclose their spouses’ and children’s employment status, assets owned as well as international travel records.

It’s a bid to ensure transparency and accountability in government officials, as they would have to account for any large and unjustified accumulation of wealth whilst they occupy positions of influence.

 Another area of dealing with corruption the Chinese have emphasised is that of doing away with extravagance and hedonism that encourages a misplaced sense of entitlement. Often, the ruling officials splurge on themselves with impunity as they lead opulent lifestyles supported by state coffers.

 In China however, the winds have been shifting. While for years, the doctrine of “letting some people get rich first” pushed by former leader Deng Xiaoping had fostered this extravagant and grandiose culture by top government officials; frugality and thrift are now the buzzwords. 

China’s party leadership has now banned such trinkets as flower arrangements for officials in meeting rooms and hotels as well as other luxurious gifts during festivals. Additionally, government officials now have caps on daily spending when travelling around the country.

An interesting observation was that at least 99% of the violations involving graft where committed by prefecture or township level officials.  This is not peculiar to China alone, many other countries have extensive corruption at low levels of government by parliamentarians or council officials. It is at grassroots structures that corruption must be nipped in the bud.

Top rungs

But more importantly, the Chinese fight against corruption has attracted the involvement of the top leaders.  The top rungs of leadership, with President Xi at the forefront have been consistent in their anti-corruption message and not merely political rhetoric.  This is definitely something that is needed in Africa as part of efforts to confront corruption.

 A common Chinese practice of “Guan Xi”- related gift giving - previously seen as a way of building relationships and connections basing on those gifts has for long been viewed as a form of corruption especially by foreigners.  As the crackdown on corruption continues, officials are becoming more circumspect in their involvement in such practices.

Some reports even suggest the crackdown on corruption has been weighing down growth in the Asian giant’s economy as conspicuous spending by top officials dips. This however is an argument for another day. What’s needed now is an effective way of rooting out corruption and graft particularly that of top government officials in Africa.

Should African policy makers be serious about corruption, then the China approach might be one of the good places to start.

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