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    Why Supervision Committees Spell Danger for Corrupt Officials

    A new pilot scheme will empower those outside the party to hold bureaucrats accountable.

    In four years, China’s anti-corruption campaign has made huge inroads despite doubts about its sustainability. It is now time for the country to enforce a unified mechanism with universal coverage to curtail corruption and abuses of power.

    Last month, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which runs the party’s daily operations, issued a directive to the provinces of Zhejiang in the east and Shanxi in the north, as well as to the Beijing Municipality, asking each to build a supervisory body overseen by their local legislative systems. This was an unprecedented measure, as it implied that real power was to be ensconced in an extra-party institution. 

    The supervision commissions will be dedicated graft-busting organizations designed to integrate China’s three existing supervisory forces. The commissions’ mandate places all of China’s power-holders under a system of universal oversight. The new bodies will be equal to the government in legal standing and more effective at holding the government accountable, bringing an end to 60 years of internal disciplinary supervision in the party. 

    I have researched corruption for more than three decades and would never have imagined that the CPC Central Committee would undertake a policy reform as ambitious as this. Until now, the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) has been the mainstay of corruption control in China. But this audit from within the party itself — built on the former Soviet model — has proven inefficient at clamping down on graft. As President Xi Jinping has recognized, corruption has worsened over the years, and it is high time we scrapped the Soviet method and undertook a root-and-branch overhaul of government supervision policy.

    If the pilot scheme is successful, the new supervision commissions will have a national mandate to fight corruption within the government, its affiliated agencies, and the civil service. The new organizations will also be duty-bound to address an ever-growing culture of corruption across all walks of Chinese life. 

    I have been involved in the fight against corruption since I wrote my first dissertation 30 years ago and have served as a member of the CCDI’s anti-graft think tank ever since. China was actually one of the earliest countries in the world to place its officials under external supervision. During the Qin dynasty of the late third century B.C., the emperor sanctioned the independent supervision of members of the imperial court. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 broke that long-standing tradition, making the party responsible for monitoring the behavior of its own officials and thereby relegating such oversight to a subordinate role in state affairs. 

    In a letter to the CCDI leadership in 1995, I suggested that before substantial reforms of the supervision system were possible, it was advisable to first revive a tactic backed by ancient wisdom: sending high-powered government envoys to make surprise inspection visits to civil service and state sector offices.

    The prototype of such inspection tours took shape in 1996, and the tours have become the single most important force behind the anti-corruption drive in China. Supervision by high-power officials has proven significant in cracking a host of major corruption cases. Since the Xi administration took power in 2012, 10 rounds of inspection tours by a few hundred empowered high officials have wreaked havoc on despotic officials to a degree unparalleled by the previously blunt-edged army of tens of thousands of enforcement officers.

    The simple reason for the recent success of these reforms is that no matter how sharp the blade is, it can never cut into its own handle. It is exactly because new inspectors have been further removed from corrupt officials within the party hierarchy that they have been able to target and punish the officials’ misdemeanors.

    Under the new supervision scheme, civic governance in the three pilot regions — which used to rely solely on the local government, the court system, and the municipal procuratorate — will now run a fourth branch: the supervision commission. Each pilot area has been selected for the way it reflects China’s social diversity, with Zhejiang representing the wealthy eastern coast, Shanxi the developing inland area, and Beijing the top-level municipal hub. The varied profiles of these regions are a testament to the widely held view in government that the battle against corruption is essential to the country’s future political legitimacy.

    The ultimate goal of structural reform of the Chinese official supervision policy is to bring about a party-led but externally managed anti-graft institution, one that can enjoy the same success as the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong, which played a significant role in the city’s development into a modern financial hub during the 1980s and ’90s. This, in turn, will make corruption unthinkable to anyone holding government office and will increase the capacity of state governance in China.

    (Header image: Security personnel monitor as people arrive for the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 3, 2016. Damir Sagolj/Reuters)