Is China more corrupt than India?
The problem has grown to such an alarming scale that the Communist Party of China has begun fearing for its survival.
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Over the past few weeks, China's attention has been gripped by the stunning downfall of one of the country's most powerful leaders. For a decade, the grim-faced, square-jawed Zhou Yongkang held firm control over China's feared security apparatus. Zhou perhaps exercised more power than any of the eight other leaders that sat alongside him on the Communist Party of China's (CPC) elite Politburo Standing Committee. He extended his influence through a vast patronage network built over a four-decade rise up the party ranks - his cronies occupied positions of power and wealth in Sichuan province, where Zhou served as boss, and in the lucrative State-controlled oil industry, where he was a top official for many years. Zhou shared the spoils: his cronies and relatives amassed fortunes as they carved up State assets and leveraged their political power to line their pockets.
Zhou was in many ways symbolic of the untrammelled power and influence that Mao Zedong's Communist successors have come to accumulate in China's uniquely authoritarian-capitalist system. For the 1.3 billion residents of China's one-party State, the corruption of the party elite is no secret: people in China are well aware that corruption greases the wheels of politics and business. As China has boomed, so have the corrupt. Of the tens of thousands of "mass incidents" - as Chinese authorities like to refer to protests - recorded every year at the local level, many are driven by corrupt local officials.
The problem has grown to such an alarming scale that the CPC has begun fearing for its survival. So when Xi Jinping - the "princeling" son of a Mao contemporary and former vice premier - took over as the party's general secretary in November 2012, he made it his mission to send a strong signal that he - and the party - were serious on combating the problem. Xi pledged he would bring down not only the "flies" or lower officials but the corrupt "tigers" that roamed free among the party elite. Xi's declaration was met mostly by cynicism. After all, the CPC has generally been careful to protect its own. Surely Xi would not rock the boat?
In the CPC, there were no tigers fiercer than Zhou. Over the course of a year, party investigators sent by Xi methodically went after Zhou's cronies, starting in Sichuan province and then working their way through the oil industry - his bases of power. Then, this summer, the party announced it was investigating Zhou - the first ever member of the elite Standing Committee to face corruption charges.
On December 5, a Politburo meeting declared, in great detail, Zhou's many offences. It accused him of "taking advantage of his posts to seek profits for others and accepting huge bribes personally and through his family". The statement spared no detail: it said Zhou kept many "mistresses", and "traded his power for sex and money with a number of women". They accused him of amassing huge assets from businesses "resulting in serious losses of state-owned assets". The sordid details have made gripping reading for the Chinese public which has grown weary of official corruption. For Xi, taking down Zhou will boost the credibility of his anti-corruption purge, which shows no signs of letting up (at the same time, left unsaid in the Chinese media is that Zhou's removal also rather neatly eliminated a rival power centre for Xi).
Yet the size of the task facing Xi was underlined this past week by Transparency International's annual corruption index, which showed that China is falling - not rising - despite his anti-corruption campaign. According to the index, China has fallen from 40 to 36 (a lower score reflects greater corruption). Srirak Plipat, regional director of Transparency International's Asia Pacific Department, argues that China's example has raised the question of "how effective is a top-down approach when you don't have transparency, accountable government and free media and civil society".
But democratic India too is on a downward trend, placed at 38, slightly better than China, but not faring all that much better. For both countries - with two relatively new leaders at the helm - the index was "a harsh reality check", according to Plipat. The index is probably more or less accurate in its rating of China and India.
Considering the opacity that still shrouds the political elite in China, and the larger size of the Chinese economy, the world's second-largest, it is likely that the scale of corruption dwarfs India's. Chinese authorities have themselves estimated that as much as 800 billion Yuan (Rs 8 lakh crore) may have been taken out of the country as ill-gotten wealth. (The Rs 4,479 crore supposedly stashed by 339 Indians in Swiss banks pales in comparison.) There are far less checks and balances in China, especially in the still murky State-run sector where the lines between party, politics and business are blurred. Zhou was a case in point: he leveraged his political connections to amass wealth in one of the most lucrative State-dominated areas of the economy, the petroleum industry. And he was by no means an exception.
Yet that should be no cause for celebration in India: corruption in the two countries are, in some sense, very different beasts. In the five years that I have been living in China, I've noticed that corruption is far less of an everyday problem. One reason that the Communist Party - despite the prevalence of so many corrupt officials at the top - still enjoys wide legitimacy is that it has ensured the efficient (and usually painless) delivery of basic services. Whether its getting your electricity connection or gas supply or driver's licence, the system generally works (and without the extra notes needed to move things along).
As one Chinese newspaper, The Global Times, once observed of corruption in the two countries, "The game is the same, only the rules are different". A Chinese engineer based in India put it succinctly to the paper: "In India, people are more blatant about asking for a bribe. They will tell you to your face how much it will take to get a licence stamped. In China, things are more subtle - you have to guess what's required". Or to borrow from President Xi's vocabulary, in China, the tigers may be much fiercer (and far wealthier), but in India, the flies are overwhelming. And for the man on the street, flies can often be a far greater nuisance than tigers that you'll probably never have to encounter.