BEIJING— In the first year of his administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping has touted a high-profile effort to root out graft. His efforts to cut government waste and go after high-ranking officials have won him praise, but some say much more needs to be done.
Over the past year, China held one of its biggest political trials in decades and in a first, broadcast the court proceedings in almost real time online.
While the trial of ousted political star Bo Xilai drew international headlines, high-ranking officials at state-owned companies have also been targeted.
Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says despite the fanfare around the anti-corruption campaign, it is not unprecedented.
“There is not much in terms of institutional reform on how to combat corruption, and there is not much substantive difference with what they tried in the past,” he said.
According to statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court Procuratorate, the number of officials under investigation this year has not significantly increased from previous years.
But He Bing, a legal scholar at the China University of Political Science and Law, says there has been a change in the intensity of the anti-corruption campaign.
“Over the past year, about 10- 20 officials of the vice ministerial ranking or higher have been arrested. It is an intense crackdown,” He Bing says. “One can talk about cracking down on corruption, but the key thing is that you arrest those who are corrupt.”
Officials are also facing increased public scrutiny and it is getting more difficult for officials to flaunt their wealth and misuse public funds. When a local Beijing official decided to host a massive three-day wedding for his son in October, the media pounced.
Later, he was removed from office.
Newspapers and television channels have also released lengthy undercover reports about the measures officials are using to skirt a ban on banquets and misuse public funds.
Over the past year, restaurants that host banquets have been hit hard, with many seeing their business almost cut in half. Some have tried to continue to survive by creating more private spaces for government officials.
On Beijing’s Yuetan Street, also known as Ministry Street because of the many government offices nearby, sellers of high-end Chinese liquor say sales have sunk this year by about 30 percent.
The manager of one high-end banquet restaurant on Yuetan Street who did not want to be quoted directly says business has been so bad that he has had to switch to serving Japanese Teppanyaki, a style of cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food, and rent out the upper floor of his establishment.
Such economic strains, while painful, are a good thing, says economist Hu Xingdou, because over-reliance on such government expenditures creates a false economy.
Hu says China’s administrative costs are huge and that according to official statistics, 25 percent of the government’s revenues are spent on administrative expenses.
“Some scholars think it is more around 35 percent, and there are those who even think it is fifty percent,” Hu says. “So half of public spending, or about half of it goes to pay government expenses.”
The public seems pleased with the changes. One man surnamed Li, who works in a restaurant, says that while his business is hurting, overall the effort to cut down on waste is a good thing and it seems to be making progress in the cities.
However, more focus on waste at the local level is needed, he adds.
“There is so much corruption there, for example a corrupt village head in the countryside can get hundreds of thousands and even millions of Chinese yuan,” Li says.
One way the government is looking to crack down on corrupt local officials is by allowing more transparency of local and central government budgets. Reining in spending and having a clearer sense of how funds are spent will do more than help limit waste, says He Bing.
“If you know how they spend money then you can not easily control the waste that is spent on banquets, but the power of officials as well,” He says. “It is the abuse of power and lack of control that leads to the misuse of funds.”
But even with these changes, more independent supervision is still needed, says Hu Xingdou.
“Because the government cannot initiate any political reform, it is very difficult to reform the anti-corruption system. It is very hard to have independent organs monitor the corrupt behavior [of party officials]. It is hard to have real freedom of the press, and it is also hard to have asset disclosure [laws].”
For all of the scrutiny that President Xi Jinping has brought to corruption, analysts note that the government has limited public oversight by tightening restrictions on freedom of expression. New rules that carry hefty punishments for spreading information online chill public oversight. Analysts say that loosening these restrictions would allow the public to play a bigger role in keeping officials in check.