BEIJING— When Xi Jinping visited the southern city of Shenzhen last week, his first regional inspection since he was appointed as Communist Party's chief, Chinese media highlighted Xi's explicit orders not to lay down red carpets or prepare lavish banquets.
Analysts say this low-key approach is just part of an intensifying effort by China’s new leaders to crack down on one of the biggest sources of public discontent, official corruption. But how far Chinese officials are willing to go remains unclear.
“The question is what do we find behind those words, are they really trying to change or reform something or are they using these buzzwords to legitimize the status quo and to justify the use anti-corruption as a means to solve political conflicts in a non-violent, more or less civilized way,” Flora Sapio, is a professor of Chinese law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China’s leaders have long talked about an urgent need to address corruption.
Xi Jinping, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have all talked about the threat corruption poses to the Communist Party and the state.
In 2007, Hu even likened corruption to “a time bomb buried under society.”
But perhaps the strongest remark came in the late 90s, when then premier Zhu Rongji remarked in comments about corruption: “I’ll have 100 coffins prepared. Ninety-nine are for corrupt officials and the last one is for myself.”
Despite these many pronouncements, corruption remains rampant.
According a 2007 study by Minxin Pei, director of the China Program at Washington D.C.’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 percent of government spending in China is used for kickbacks and bribes, while less than three percent of corrupt officials end up being punished.
Tide changing, cyber sleuths
In recent weeks, however, news reports have detailed the launch of investigations and dismissal of a growing number of officials. In many cases, the details of their alleged illicit activities and abuses were first leaked through social media sites online.
Some believe this cycle of exposing official corruption on social media - which pressures officials to investigate and has led in some cases to dismissals - is a sign of progress.
Others warn of the dangers of citizens making public information that belongs in a court of law.
Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says that the use of microblog sites such as China’s Twitter-like Weibo is more a reflection of a systematic lack of transparency in China.
“While the use of Weibo, the Internet and mistresses is the Chinese way of fighting corruption, it’s not a comprehensive approach,” Hu says. “The key is creating a more modern system of fighting corruption.”
Party monitors itself
In China, the power to investigate party officials is in the hands of a Communist party body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which exists at each level of government and has branches inside large state companies, as well.
When abuse of power is reported, the commission needs to get clearance from a senior party body before it can investigate the cadres' alleged wrongdoing.
“You have a party anti-corruption body that is monitoring, supervising, investigating and to a certain extent also punishing, and handling cases of corruption. So monitoring and supervision are strongly biased in favor of interior mechanism which are by definition not transparent,” Sapio says.
Emboldened by the leadership's recent calls to end corruption, many scholars in China are now making suggestions about how the system could be improved and other reforms that might strengthen supervision.
One reform on the table is the establishment of a "sunshine law" that would require officials to disclose their assets.
Sapio says that a sunshine policy might help uncover minor forms of corruption, but notes that a number of factors might make it difficult to carry out.
“What happens if it is found out that you possess property in excess of your legitimate income? Would you automatically be criminally investigated? Would you be investigated by party bodies? Depending on the answer each of these questions will receive in the future an asset disclosure may help place a check on corruption, or alternatively it might just enable party bodies to have more information on party members,” she says.
On Sunday, just as Xi Jinping was touring Shenzhen, the southern province of Guangdong revealed plans to make officials' assets publicly available in three counties.
Hu Xingdou says it is still unclear how this will work. “In the past that has only meant that information would be disclosed internally. It does not mean that they will allow that information about assets to be made public in newspapers or on the Internet for people to see,” Hu says.
Since 2010, low-level officials have been required to disclose their assets to their superiors, but such reports are not released to the public.
An independent body
Ren Jianming, director of the anti-corruption and governance research center at Beijing's Tsinghua University, is one of the eight scholars who recently met with Wang Qishan, the newly appointed head of China’s anti-graft commission.
Ren says that during the meeting some specialists suggested improvement to the asset-disclosure system, but he added that those measures are not enough.
“We have to go more in depth and look at why the policies we had in place in the past did not stop corruption,” he says.
In Ren's view, past failures stemmed from a lack of independence in the commission's work.
“For an organ to be functioning it needs to be independent and it needs to have complete authority over its work and its finances, that is how it can have a beneficial effect into the body's monitoring system,” Ren says.
Looking to neighbors
Analysts say China is looking at its neighbors, including Singapore and Hong Kong, to shape a more effective anti-corruption system at home.
In Hong Kong's case, the government established a special commission in the 1970s, when the city-state was plagued by widespread corruption. The organ was given substantial funds and complete independence to carry out its investigations, which catapulted Hong Kong into the ranks of the world's cleanest governments.
But in China, where the Communist party exerts such broad control - of police, the courts and the government itself - empowering an independent body to monitor state officials is likely to be seen as threat to the party’s existence.
Some in China say that, although they trust the new leadership’s determination to push for change, making that happen may depend on more than strong-willed individuals.