September 28, 2010, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)
Speaker: Kate Westgarth, China Coordination Team, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK
The main aim of ThinkIN China’s first event was to analyze corruption, a pivotal topic that represents one of the main aspect of the variegated Chinese reality. Moreover, being loyal to ThinkIN China beliefs, the debate intended neither to criticise nor to reduce such an intricate topic to banal distinctions. On the contrary, it sought to penetrate the topic with curiosity and genuine interest. Kate Westgarth presented the public a valued insight about corruption in China, particularly, its historical and cultural roots and related problems the Party has in managing and handling such a critical issue. Westgarth has an extensive knowledge of China, being the Head of China Coordination Team in United Kingdom’s Foreign Office. She is now on sabbatical studying at The Marxism Academy. During her career she spent more than ten years in China and has written about the Party, leadership and Xinjiang*.
The starting point of any analysis of corruption in China, according to the speaker, must deal with the differences existing between the West’s concept of corruption and the Confucian tradition of seeking social order through morals and harmony of personal relationships, rather than through law and punishment. Western universalist thought states that corruption can be controlled through an independent judiciary, official states that corruption can be controlled through an independent judiciary, official transparency and an enhanced supervisory role for both the public and the media.
However, it cannot be applied in a cultural and political context such as modern China, with its Confucian tradition and the predominant role of the Party in the State’s affairs.
It should be noted that corruption in China is not a phenomenon born or grown in the sixty years of Communist rule, it can be tracked to the Imperial times. General perception in China sees corruption and weak government as evidence of lack of legitimacy leading to the collapse of a political system. The main Party concern is linked to this general perception, namely to fight corruption without generating increasing public awareness on the problem, so as to avoid destroying the Party legitimacy. As Chen Yu said: “fight corruption too little and destroy the country? fight it too much and destroy the Party”.
In order to face the spread of corruption, the Central Party Committee (CPC) has adopted a dual strategy. On one hand it relies on the Confucian approach of exhorting cadres to be the moral example in their work style through retro slogan as: “be the Party’s loyal guards and the masses’ best friends”. On the other hand, the Party has started the implementation of western remedies, such as rules based regulation and other tools as an ombudsman and public hotlines etc… Moreover, the Party has issued a Code of Ethics for Cadres, in which more than 52 practices are described as unacceptable and can be the basis for criminal law procedures. Nevertheless, the role of the media are more concentrated on covering big scandals (such as those concerning sons of Party nomenklatura) rather than of being the watching civil eye on public matters. In fact, while the leadership encourages reporting on local level malfeasances, it clamps down when reporters uncover cases considered inconvenient to the Party. Finally, according to Westgarth, “West’s panacea seems a very long way off”. It remains to be seen whether anticorruption with Chinese characteristics is anymore successful for the CPC than it was for previous dynasties.
Westgarth’s speech and analysis spurred much debate amongst the audience, Audience members engaged the speaker on issues such as the links between political power systems and economic networks, sexrelated political scandals, the role of Confucianism norms in Chinese society, judicial regulation and the potential of a freer press as a vehicle for tackling corruption.
The vivid debate created by Westgarth’s speech demonstrates the extensive interest of the audience in the matter. The theme of corruption is seen as crucial within the political and cultural discourse of modern China and its patterns of transformation.
(*)The views and opinions expressed by Kate Westgarth are a personal academic analysis, and therefore do not represent the official stance of UK Foreign Office, UK Government or generally UK diplomatic corp.