The trial and conviction of Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member, sparks a look at two of the world's largest economies and how its peoples have learned to tackle corruption.
I’ve spent the last few days in Jinan, a green and wet city of lakes and mountains in a corner of eastern China. I was there to report on Sunday’s much-anticipated verdict in the case of the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who’s fall from grace, triggered by the biggest political scandal the country has seen in a generation, has transfixed the nation this past year.
Bo was sentenced to life in prison -- the heaviest sentence for a Politburo member in recent memory, likely prompted by the unusual defiance he displayed in court in a country where most political trials are nothing more than carefully choreographed theatre.
The general reaction to the Bo Xilai case I’ve encountered from readers in India – through comments on our website, on Twitter and through other conversations – has been marked by a certain sense of envy that a politician was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes worth “only” Rs. 20 crore.
“All for just 20 crores! Awesome Chinese,” wrote in one reader. “I hope we as a people, not just our political rulers, learn from the constant progress the Chinese are making,” Rahul Garg posted in a comment on our website. “In India,” added Harish, “all those involved in such scandals are free and still active in national politics. It shows how insensitive, tolerant and indifferent our system is towards public money and national resources. We as ‘aam admi’ take it as a routine news and learned to live with it.”
The reaction in China was far less adulatory. People in Beijing and Jinan I spoke to widely saw the Bo Xilai case as having more to do with political in-fighting rather than corruption being on trial. In fact, details of the proceedings were seen more as reaffirming the deepening public perceptions of rampant corruption among Party elite, who are seen as leading lives increasingly out of touch with the middle classes.
As tempting as it may be for us in India to look at the strong Chinese State as an exemplar of how to deal with corruption with a firm hand, the reality is likely more complicated. Consider the Bo Xilai case. The main case against Bo, as laid out by prosecutors in the Jinan courtroom, related to bribes amounting to 20 million Yuan (around Rs. 20 crore) allegedly taken when he was serving as the Party boss in Dalian. That was a decade ago. In the ten years since, Bo rose to the top of the party, first serving as Commerce Minister in Beijing, before he was promoted to join the elite 25-member Politburo.
It is also important to remember that Bo’s rise through the party was helped, in no small measure, by his familial connections. His father, Bo Yibo, who died in 2007, was an influential party elder, one among “eight immortals” who played a key role in the CPC’s early years. He was a contemporary of current President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun. Bo and Xi are among a group of second-generation “Reds” poised to take control of the party their fathers founded. In Communist China, too, political dynasties are alive and well.
Rather ironically, just as it has become common for many in India who look at the strong Chinese State “which gets things done” - whether in terms of building bridges or locking up criminals - with some amount of envy, one often hears some yearning among progressive, college-educated Chinese, especially in Beijing and Shanghai, for the legal architecture and political system we have in India.
Many in China see a right to information law, or more importantly, a move to have officials declare their assets, as the answer to their corruption problem. In fact, a move to make politicians declare their assets has recently become, for many Chinese activists, the silver bullet they are seeking in their battle against corruption (one wonders if they are aware that in India, corruption has continued to proliferate unchecked, with politicians finding increasingly innovative ways to declare mystifyingly low amounts of money as their assets every election year).
In China, too, it appears unlikely any such law – which the Communist Party is, in any case, unlikely to agree to – will have the far-reaching cathartic effect that Chinese activists are seeking, with many Chinese politicians, like their Indian counterparts, stashing their fortunes either in the names of their relatives or friends, or in overseas accounts.
For Indians and Chinese, the grass may simply appear greener across the border. But how do both countries compare when it comes to the scale of official corruption? Considering the opacity of the Chinese political and legal system, the absence of a judiciary independent of the party, and the lack of independent media to report on such issues, one has to assume that we probably know far less about the actual depth of corruption in China.
At the highest levels of the party and government, I would hazard a guess that what has come out, usually through the corruption purges we see often triggered by factional in-fighting, is just the tip of the iceberg. Through anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard of astronomical sums of money being talked with even local cadres amassing huge fortunes at the lowest village and township levels (some of them have been spotted gambling away their millions in Macau’s casinos).
But as far as the common man is concerned, the everyday corruption we see in India – whether at the local RTO to get a licence, or to fix a pothole in your street – appears far less prevalent in China, where the delivery of services at the local level is far more efficient and painless. The tens of thousands of protests at the grassroots we see in China are almost always directed at a very specific local grievance, rather than at the wider system.
The corruption of top officials may certainly evoke resentment, particularly among educated Chinese, but is less likely to bring people out into the streets, particularly if the party can continue to deliver rapid growth. In some sense, it is this everyday corruption – rather than the massive kickbacks that may take place at the highest levels of government, which in China may very well dwarf what we see in India– that evokes greater public anger, and is far more dangerous for any government -- particularly in a one-party State.