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China has signaled a shift in its anti-graft focus from the bribed to bribers, and harsher punishments are on the table

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Dec.1

People visit an anti-corruption education exhibit. Authorities said they are ramping up the crackdown on bribery

On September 8, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s top anti-corruption agency, released a document declaring that it would step up investigation and punishment for those offering bribes to government officials.  

Stressing the law will intensify penalties on all parties involved, the document said its focus will be on those who repeatedly commit bribery, offering huge bribes and bribery in key sectors, including major State and commercial projects.  

Warning of the political harm of bribers going unpunished, the document said increased precision and effectiveness in combating bribery will address both “the symptoms and causes” of corruption.  

China launched a massive anti-graft campaign after President Xi Jinping took office in 2013. Vowing to target both “tigers and flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats, the Xi-led campaign resulted in the prosecution of tens of thousands of Party cadres and officials of all levels. According to an estimate by Party-run newspaper Economic Daily, 221 senior officials of provincial and ministerial rank have been disciplined since 2013.  

With Impunity 
Experts believe the document marks a major shift in the focus of China’s ongoing anticorruption drive. “A fundamental rationale behind China’s anti-graft drive in the past was that as long as public officials were held accountable for their behavior, corruption could be solved,” said Mao Zhaohui, director of the Center for Anti-corruption and Clean Government at the Renmin University of China in Beijing.  

Mao told NewsChina that the approach resulted in law enforcement primarily focusing on officials who took bribes. As long as bribers cooperated with authorities in their investigations, most would not face criminal charges.  

According to data from China Judgments Online, an official database of judicial rulings run by the Supreme People’s Court, China’s court system filed 9,233 documents involving those charged with taking bribes between 2018 and 2019. By comparison, only 3,322 documents involving defendants accused of offering bribes were filed during the same period.  

Luo Xing, an associate fellow with the China Academy of Discipline Inspection and Supervision, told NewsChina that another reason why authorities tend to adopt a more relaxed policy toward bribers is that most are entrepreneurs, often founders and heads of major local firms.  

According to a CCDI report, 88.4 percent of bribers prosecuted by authorities in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province are businesspeople and entrepreneurs.  

“The concern is that their downfall would disrupt the operations of their firms, which could cause unemployment and major local economic instability,” Luo said.  

“For those who win government contracts through bribery, many were allowed to carry on with these contracts,” Mao said.  

But as corruption remains prevalent after eight years of the high-profile anti-graft drive, China’s leadership is now rethinking the approach. “It has become clear that the ongoing anti-graft campaign has not been a deterrent in business circles,” Mao said.  

Instead, some are even more brazen in their bribery, becoming repeat offenders.  

Among them is Chen Zuyuan, an entrepreneur from Guangdong Province. In 2007, Chen was implicated in the case of Hu Xing, deputy chief of the provincial transportation department of Yunnan Province, who received a life sentence for accepting bribes totaling 32 million yuan (US$5m). Eighty percent of the amount came from Chen, who cooperated with prosecutors and was not charged.  

Eight years later in 2015, Chen was caught bribing officials again. He offered more than 50 million yuan (US$7.7m) to Wan Qingliang, former Party chief of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province. Chen was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to four years, a punishment far more lenient than the life sentence Wan received in 2016. 

“We must be conscientiously aware that a major reason corruption continues to exist is that bribers have resorted to whatever means necessary to entrap Party cadres,” the document said.  
Evident Dilemma 
Despite this change in strategy, authorities face the same challenges in holding bribers to account as in the past.  

In 1999, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a legal opinion on harsher punishment for bribers. In 2017, in the report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the country’s leadership vowed it would ramp up law enforcement against both bribers and bribees. Neither had a major impact.  

“The dilemma is that given the secrecy of corruption cases, authorities find it extremely difficult to gather solid evidence for cases without the cooperation of bribers,” Luo said.  

China’s leadership appears well aware of that. In an article on the CCDI’s website addressing questions about the September 8 document, an unnamed official from the agency is quoted as saying the agency’s pledge to “hold both the bribers and bribees accountable” does not mean that it seeks to make bribers subject to the same punishment as bribed officials. Instead, it aims to use a “comprehensive” toolbox to incorporate “legal, administrative and economic means” to tackle the issue.  

The CCDI document says that authorities will “vigorously” enforce financial punishments meted out to bribers with “maximum efforts to recover the illegally obtained economic benefits.” It adds that authorities will make efforts to revoke the “professional, political, business and academic credentials” of convicted bribers.  

Blacklists and Bans 
“We will conduct research on how to implement market entry and qualification restrictions for bribers, and the establishment of a blacklist of bribers,” the document reads, without providing further details.  

There have been similar local initiatives in the past. One of the first was in 2012 in Ningbo, a city in Zhejiang Province with a population of about 8 million.  

Applying specifically to the construction sector, the blacklist included 17 individuals out of some 90 bribers identified by local prosecutors since 1998. But as the blacklist was not backed by other government agencies, it was not legally binding. However, names were made public to serve as a deterrent.  

Provincial governments have since launched their own backlists. In June 2020, Hunan Province listed six firms and 104 individuals in the construction engineering sector, which mainly works in infrastructure projects. Those on the list were blocked from bidding on government projects and denied government subsidies. They are subjected to harsher taxation and higher interest rates on loans from State-owned banks.  

In March, the city of Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, released a blacklist for its construction and mining sectors of 76 individuals. Each department involved is required to set up their own mechanism for market entry restrictions.  

But many experts warn these measures have limited impact. Liu Hongbo, an anticorruption official in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, told NewsChina that firms and individuals can easily bypass blacklist restrictions by making personnel changes and registering new companies.  

Moreover, Liu said that prosecuted cases are just the tip of the iceberg, as most corruption involves increasingly complex financial tools which often go far beyond the capabilities of anti-corruption agencies.  

According to Mao Zhaohui, the CCDI document’s greatest significance is that it was issued in cooperation with major agencies including the National Supervision Commission, the CPC’s Organization Department, the United Front Work Department, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. 
Mao said this demonstrates a strong political will to tackle the issue and indicates a more coordinated strategy.  

“The next step for China’s anti-corruption efforts should be the adoption of advanced technologies such as big data so it can find the hidden ties between officials and businesspeople,” Mao said.