The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China launched an anti-corruption campaign last year. So why is its reputation getting worse?

A high-profile anti-corruption campaign launched last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be very popular with the general public. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be working very well -- at least in the view of experts around the world.

The global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI), in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index found that China had tumbled farther down the list since last year's report than any other country, dropping 20 places. It now occupies 100th place on the list, out of 175 countries surveyed.

TI’s rankings measure perceptions of corruption in each country’s public sector from a variety of different sources. China this year scored 36 points on a scale where 100 equals total purityThat means it is perceived as slightly more corrupt than places like Colombia, Egypt and Liberia. By contrast, this year’s least corrupt country, Denmark, scored 92. The most corrupt were North Korea and Somalia, which each scored 8.

In China, Xi has vowed to catch both the tigers and the flies – the high-level and low-level officials – responsible for graft, and there have already been several high-profile defendants. The campaign rarely leaves the news, and undoubtedly has had an effect on how brazen officials are about flaunting and spending their ill-gotten gains, with a well-documented decline in demand for luxury goods in China.

This week, the former Portuguese colony of Macau, the only part of China where gambling is legal, reported the first contraction in its economy for five years in the third quarter of 2014. The reason, apparently, was a big drop in revenues at casinos, partly linked to China’s economic slowdown but also blamed on the campaign to eradicate graft.

At the same time, China Daily newspaper reported a drop in the number of people taking a highly competitive exam to join the civil service. The paper said the decline was connected to the anti-corruption campaign that had dampened the attractiveness of a job in the public sector for some students.

So why is China not doing better on TI’s index?

One possible reason, according to TI’s Rukshana Nanayakkara, is that China has embarked on a top-down campaign that is focused more on punishing people rather than systemic fixes. Punishment can create a short-term deterrent effect, and is good public relations for the president, but it may be less effective if the victims are perceived as having been selected for more for political than legal reasons – the investigation into former security chief Zhou Yongkang is a good example.

And it won’t have as much effect as a multi-faceted campaign that involves civil society, is built on an independent investigative agency and judicial authority, and reduces incentives for public sector graft. “If you want to fight corruption, it has to come from the bottom, from the grassroots – rather than just punishing people,” Nanayakkara says.

Civil society activists in China who have demanded that officials declare their assets have been locked up for their troubles, while public servants enjoy enormous power thanks to multiple layers of red tape, but earn poor salaries – the perfect ingredients for bribery to thrive. Under Chinese law, Nanayakkara adds, a bribe is also not criminalized if it falls below the equivalent of $820 for an individual or $32,700 for a company.

A recent report on state news agency Xinhua that presented corruption in China as a systemic problem was subsequently deleted, the South China Morning Post reported this week -- apparently  because it contradicted the party line that ascribes it not to the system but to individual moral weaknesses.

But it might be too early to write China’s anti-corruption campaign off completely. TI’s rankings draw on data from 12 different sources, including the World Bank, Freedom House and the World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey, compiled in 2013 and 2014. It is possible that China’s rating will improve again next year as the campaign shows up in some of the source surveys, and as the campaign bites more deeply into official behavior. But it may not be the success the Communist Party would claim it to be.