x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

China's challenge is to tame corruption

China's new leadership will face a daunting task of stamping out corruption.

Inside the Great Hall of the People this week, the twice-a-decade formalities are being played out for the cameras. As the National People's Congress begins today in Beijing, China's Communist Party cadre will officially anoint the next president and premier, the leaders of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

We already know the outcome: President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang will stand at the dais when the 10-day gathering ends, while their predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will exit stage left. What we don't know is whether it will make a difference. Among the most pressing questions is whether corruption, the very public bogeyman of Chinese society, will finally be tackled by the Party.

Graft, nepotism and other official abuses of power are open secrets in China and, in recent years, openly acknowledged by political leaders. Mr Xi joins a long line of politicians promising reform. One of his first moves after becoming chairman of the Party in November was to order an end to lavish official banquets. He also initiated a purge of leaders "breaching party discipline" and, in January, called on leaders to fight corruption among both "tigers" and "flies" - an obvious reference to national leaders, whom many believed were inviolable, as well as lowly bureaucrats.

Yet this battle requires politicians to police themselves. China's opaque political system may encourage abuse. One example, reported by The New York Times in October, showed that the family of the current prime minster and purported reformer, Mr Wen, has profited from his position. Mr Xi, meanwhile, is a "princeling" of a well-known Party dynasty, and western media have reported that his family has also grown wealthy during his career.

If Mr Xi is serious about bringing graft and corruption to heel, he will challenge a system of privilege and power. Outside of Beijing, local officials have a high degree of autonomy in how funds are spent and contracts are allocated. The endemic corruption will be a hard nut to crack.

In the end, Mr Xi (or his successors) will have little choice. Chinese society is tired of the rot that is regularly exposed in the very public shaming of mid-level officials on social media. The Party derives its legitimacy, since the days of Mao Zedong, on the perception that honest leaders govern in the interests of all Chinese. In an unaccountable political system, it remains to be seen if Mr Xi can restore that faith.