In the nearly four decades since the advent of China’s market-driven policy reforms, the government has made repeated efforts to control and prevent corruption through political campaigns, legal enforcement, and moral education. In doing so, it has recognized the challenge that it poses to its ability to govern effectively and to its political legitimacy.
Controlling corruption is imperative for a country’s social stability and development. This is because it both impedes economic growth and aggravates existing social inequality in all societies. In China, however, the efficacy of the government’s anti-corruption measures to date remains open to debate — especially if you ask members of the general public.
Some scholars take encouragement from China’s anti-corruption crusade, noting that since the mid-1990s, the country has strengthened anti-graft laws and introduced new measures aiming to tackle the problem. Others link the battle against corruption to political concerns, asserting that such campaigns shore up a government’s legitimacy when it is confronted with low public trust. Still more hold the view that the campaigns have been ineffective despite the government’s persistent efforts.
While debate has largely focused on the causes and effects of corruption and the efficacy of government policy, scant attention has been paid to the public reaction to the state’s crackdown on corruption. Public attitudes toward these efforts, whether positive or negative, have a significant impact on the extent to which people are willing to support the government’s endeavors. Ultimately, it is they who determine the success of corruption control.
Drawing on mass survey data from across Shanghai, the research team led by myself and my colleague, Gong Ting of the City University of Hong Kong, examined the perceptions of Chinese citizens toward the government’s policy. In particular, we focused on two questions: First, what does the public think of the effectiveness of the government’s anti-corruption drive? Second, what factors influence people’s perceptions of the campaign’s success or failure?
Specifically, we focused on a metric we called the “sense of anti-corruption efficacy,” which we defined as people’s expectations that campaigns will lead to positive outcomes — namely, that perpetrators of illegal activities will be identified and brought to justice. This metric, in turn, reflects people’s ultimate confidence and trust in the government’s campaign.
Our data indicates that two salient factors exert considerable influence over an individual’s sense of anti-corruption efficacy: One is the extent to which the person feels that income is fairly distributed across society, and the other is the person’s view of how political influences should affect income distribution.
As corruption leads to greater social disparity, people who perceive income distribution to be unfair may have higher expectations for the efficacy of anti-corruption campaigns. At the same time, however, people who tolerate excessive and unjustified political influence over income distribution may be less interested in anti-graft reform generally.
The two factors above influence people’s attitudes toward anti-corruption measures in different ways. First, it stands to reason that if an individual feels that income is fairly distributed across society, he or she may also believe that reform has been successful. Second, people who believe that income is not fairly distributed and who oppose undue political meddling in income distribution will likely view the campaigns as ineffectual. Third, if someone tolerates greater political influence over income distribution, then he or she will generally have lower expectations for the efficacy of such campaigns, even if the person feels that income is unfairly distributed across society.
Our research thus presents a more nuanced picture of what people in Shanghai expect of anti-corruption campaigns. In China, decades of market-oriented reform have delivered vast economic growth, filled the national coffers, and put money back into the pockets of many citizens. However, without an effective solution to the country’s rampant corruption problems, the real effect of economic development on the lives of the general public will remain dubious. Our study reinforces the notion that despite improved living conditions, people may still hold negative attitudes toward centrally controlled income redistribution and still feel dissatisfied with their personal income in comparison with others’. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of respondents reported that they felt income distribution was unfair on either a personal or national level.
However, our study also reveals that a significant proportion of people accept high levels of political influence over income distribution. These people, in turn, usually hold lower expectations for the efficacy of government crackdowns on corruption. Normally, we would expect deep-seated grievances over unfair incomes to lead to demands that the government step in to promote social justice and equality — particularly if people believe that corruption is caused by unjustified political influence over economic affairs. However, our study shows that if people do not feel strongly about political influence over income distribution, they will be similarly apathetic toward reform, most of which aims to curb abuse of political power.
There are two main implications that we can draw from our findings. First, the survey results suggest that although people express dissatisfaction with unequal income distribution, they are unlikely to place high expectations on the campaign’s ability to bring about justice and social fairness if they also think political intrusion into wealth distribution is part of the problem. In other words, if people readily view politicians as meddlers in economic affairs, they are unlikely to trust those same politicians to then effectively control corruption, for the obvious reason that the problem comes from within the government itself. Indeed, our findings showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that many businessman have made money with the help of public officials.
This leads us to the second implication of our research. Anti-corruption schemes are by nature multifaceted endeavors, requiring more than just control mechanisms to address existing corrupt activity. Similarly, public support for the government’s measures hinges on more than just the way individuals perceive current anti-graft policies. Factors such as how people perceive income distribution across society, as well as how political actors either positively or negatively influence this distribution, strongly shape public support. Therefore, while it is important for the government to demonstrate the political will to fight corruption, it must also focus on deeper-rooted social inequalities for policies to be seen as truly effective.
The Chinese government has been waging war on corruption for several years through a combination of feverish crackdowns, increased policing, and gradual systemic reform. However, one thing is certain: The state’s campaign-style enforcement strategy has failed to meet the public’s expectations for the policy’s efficacy. This is because the problem is not as simple as designing and implementing one specific policy; rather, it goes beyond the corruption issue per se to touch upon the role of political power in societal wealth redistribution — a conclusion supported by our findings. If the root of the corruption problem — excessive political intrusion into income distribution — is not redressed, a truly effective anti-corruption strategy will remain a long way off.
(Header image: Pedestrians walk past the Great Hall of the People in the early morning ahead of the opening of the third session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, March 5, 2015. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)