Public anger against corrupt politicians siphoning off public funds, or using their position to benefit their near and dear, has played a major role in pushing governments to change, whether it is in authoritarian China or democratic Japan. Corruption is no longer accepted as a fact of life but seen as a practice that can be controlled and the offenders brought to book.
Consider China. Bo Xilai, Politburo member, was handed a life-term on charges of corruption. Bo was not just a high-level party official, he was a ‘princeling’, the son of Bo Yibo, a powerful leader in the Chinese army, who had worked with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, a card-carrying member of the elite. The government moved swiftly: in February 2012 the scandal was exposed and Bo was removed from his party post in March; by July, 2013 he was charged with bribery and corruption, publicly tried and sentenced in September.
But significantly he was charged for the period 1993-2000, before he joined the Politburo, thus not implicating those who promoted him, and for accepting a relatively paltry sum of US$4 million.
Others recently charged include Liu Zhijun, former railway minister, who has been given a suspended death sentence. His fixer: a former egg-seller Ding Yuxin, who earned US$326 million in the process.
A powerful central committee member, Jiang Jiemin has also been charged which suggests to some observers that president Xi Jinping has his sights on former security head Zhou Yongkang.
The anti-corruption rhetoric is the fig leaf for a power struggle and, therefore, threatens the stability of the party. Others see this as a way for Xi to enhance his image of fighting graft and strengthening his appeal. Xi is gearing up for the Third Plenum to be held in Beijing in November.
It’s not just a few isolated cases but all seem to have milked their position. The New York Times in an expose last year claimed that the family fortune of Wen Jiabao, former Prime Minister of China, (2003-13), whose father was a pig farmer and mother a school teacher, totalled US$2.7 billion. There has been no explanation how his mother, Yang Zhiyun then 90, acquired a fortune of US$120 million. Bloomberg reported last year that the family fortune of China’s President Xi Jinping totalled US$ 376 million and the Bo Xilai family had assets worth US$ 136 millions.
Chinese leaders have to declare their personal assets and many reports suggest that both Wen and Xi are personally honest. They did underline that all these figures may have been underestimated as assets, in Hong Kong and abroad, are often held in other names.
The Chinese public anger against the power of these politically powerful families grabbing the fruits of economic development is behind President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption.
The growing gap between the rich and poor fuels this anger. Xi has promised to enforce the law impartially and fight both ‘tigers and flies’. It is a matter of debate whether he can actually deliver on his promise. In China, and in India as well, the political elite is adept at using its political connections to build business empires and rivalries can be carefully calibrated. Anger against corruption is one symptom of other problems that China faces and how this is handled will certainly affect the political stability of the party and affect its ability to rule.
The Japanese talk of ‘structural corruption’: it is an integral part of the system. Little oversight and a loose regulatory system allowed a collusive system. The ‘Lockheed scandal’ in the mid-seventies marks the old attitudes. Tanaka, the then Prime Minister, was accused of having accepted bribes by the aeroplane manufacturer and ultimately sentenced and arrested. Along with him, nearly 500 people were questioned, among them 17 Parliamentarians, though no charges were levelled against any of them. Tanaka was let off on bail, but when the trial finally ended in October 1983 he was given a four-year jail term. He appealed the sentence and refused to resign as long as his constituents supported him.
The Diet was dissolved and elections held but Tanaka came back with a huge margin and six of his faction members were given positions in the new Nakasone cabinet. Tanaka died in 1993 while his appeal was still in the courts so the matter was closed. Political corruption continues but not unabated.
Over the years attitudes have changed and the people no longer accept the inevitability of political corruption. It’s hard to stay in office when even allegations are made. In 2007, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, a minister in the government, faced with accusations of misuse of funds committed suicide. Two other ministers faced with similar allegations were forced to resign. Criminals and those convicted of electoral-related offences are disqualified from holding electoral office, and public officials convicted on charges of bribery are barred for five years.
Public pressure has also forced legal and regulatory changes that have reduced the freedom with which politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen can channel public funds at will. Since 1997 media exposure and public pressure has forced greater transparency in giving contracts resulting in a marked drop in wasteful public spending.
This, then is the take home from this experience: governments will act when they are pressed. China, with an impressive number of anti-corruption laws, even a five-year plan to fight corruption, uses the law selectively because public opinion is severely constrained. The political elite is largely untouched. This is very similar to the Indian situation. In Japan popular attitudes have changed and governments have been made more accountable. Public pressure has led to better regulatory systems and greater enforcement. Will India take the democratic route or continue along the Chinese road?
The author is a professor of Modern Japanese History, Delhi University (Retd)
The Japanese talk of ‘structural corruption’: it is an integral part of the system. Little oversight and a loose regulatory system allowed a collusive system. The ‘Lockheed scandal’ in the mid-seventies marks the old attitudes.