China expanded its controversial anti-corruption probe to focus on every official in the country

Military delegates leave the fifth plenary session of the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 17, 2018. FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
  • China has created a new anti-corruption agency that can investigate any government employee in the country, including managers who work in schools, hospitals, universities, and state-run companies.
  • The National Supervision Commission works outside the court system, and can hold suspects for up to six months without granting access to a lawyer.
  • Corruption has been widespread in China, and can be linked to the concept of ‘guanxi,’ that considers close relationships to be crucial for accomplishing business.
  • But experts say the commission is abusive, and will undermine efforts to thwart corruption and grow the economy.

China has officially established a new anti-corruption agency that can investigate any government official in the country.

Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping spearheaded an anti-graft crackdown on the 89 million-strong Communist Party. In that time, 1.5 million members have been punished.

But the introduction of the National Supervision Commission (NSC) will drastically expand the scope of the crackdown. Now, any government official who isn’t a party member can be investigated, including mangers at state-run schools, hospitals, universities, companies, cultural institutions, sports organisations, and village officials.

The new commission – which will target corruption, embezzlement and bribery – is able to act outside the court system and, in effect, is more powerful than the judiciary.

When the system was piloted in Beijing recently, the number of people being supervised quadrupled to nearly 1 million – that’s 5% of the entire city population.

While there are some improvements to a previous detention system, such as the requirement to videotape all interrogations and to notify family members within 24 hours, this latter right can be waived if staff decide doing so would impede their investigation.

One of the most controversial policies is the ability to hold suspects for up to six months without access to a lawyer

“Giving China’s graft-busters the authority to hold people incommunicado for months encourages forced confessions and other well-documented abuses,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, said when the law was drafted last year. “Putting a veneer of legality on an extra-legal detention system makes it no less abusive.”

Corruption is widespread in China

Soldier snow China umbrella
A hostess holds an umbrella for a paramilitary police for a picture at the Great Hall of the People, where China’s President Xi Jinping was elected for a second term during the fifth plenary session of the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), in Beijing on March 17, 2018. FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

While politicians who opposed Xi have been targeted and jailed in the crackdown, experts say corruption is a widespread issue in Chinese governance.

“Petty corruption used to be omnipresent at lower levels of civil service in China,” Ling Li, a fellow and expert in Chinese politics at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, told Business Insider. “Civil servants were allowed considerable discretion to withhold their services unless private incentives were provided.”

It was mostly small-scale parochial corruption, which can stem from the Chinese concept ‘guanxi.’ These are a mutually beneficial relationships that can be of use personally and in business, and while they are similar to Western networks, they play a far more crucial role – some say it is impossible to succeed without it.

“For frontline police, corruption is more a function of guanxi and gift-giving culture meeting opportunity. It’s well known that you can use money, gifts, and connections to get things done, and the police are no exception,” Suzanne Scoggins, an expert in Chinese policing at Clark University, told Business Insider.

Li says the situation “has changed significantly” under Xi’s crackdown, but corruption could still exist in areas where resources are few, stakes are high, and competition is intense.

The irony is that this may very well be the environment workers find in the new NSC, which will have an office within it to supervise and investigate NSC officials.

But the new commission could harm rather than help

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The new commission to fight corruption could undermine its very own purpose, experts say.

Richardson from Human Rights Watch believes the way the NSC deals with suspects could cause disillusionment with the anti-graft crackdown.

“Mistreating suspects is likely to hinder, rather than help, the purported campaign to fight corruption,” she said.

But the repercussions could both undercut the elements of transparency and openness that the government has been trying to foster and even affect the economy.

“Our research with colleagues in the U.S. and China shows that empowering Chinese citizens to monitor the bureaucracy has been more effective at reducing corruption than aggressive, top-down efforts that target individual corrupt officials,” Dimitar Gueorguiev and Jonathan Stromseth recently wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review. “High levels of public engagement however are unlikely to continue if an expanded political approach spreads anxiety throughout society.”

Officials have also begun to make fewer decisions in case the action were to draw scrutiny.

“By expanding the scope of the anti-graft fight beyond the Communist Party, hesitancy to make decisions that could be grounds for investigation may spread through the rest of the government, state-owned companies and other organisations,” Gueorguiev and Stromseth said.

But in reality, as much as this may hinder support for the commission, little will likely change.

“Given the importance of anti-corruption in President Xi’s path toward power-consolidation and the wide investigative mandates given to the NSC, it will further strengthen and buttress the current power structure and Xi’s hold on power,” Li said.