Editor’s note: This column is from one of the writers who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Tuesday night through Friday. For details about the conference, go to stpetersburgconferenceonworldaffairs.com.
One of the notorious global pirates of intellectual property is China’s governing Communist Party. Its pervasive corruption facilitates theft on a massive scale, especially for state-owned enterprises. But this corruption has also landed the party on the horns of a potentially fatal dilemma. On one horn, admits Chinese President Xi Jinping:
“A great deal of facts tells us that the worse corruption becomes the only outcome will be the end of the party and the end of the state!”
Corruption could be reduced through creation of institutions like an independent judiciary, free elections, competing political parties and a free press. But this reveals the other painful horn of the party’s dilemma: Creation of such institutions beyond party control could strip it of its power monopoly and accelerate its demise. As Zhang Lifan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences explains:
“There’s a commonly used phrase: Not reforming means to wait for death. Reforming means to court death.”
China’s corruption is rooted in the party’s effort to modernize the economy while maintaining unchallenged political control. As a result, over four decades after beginning its transformation from a command-directed economy toward a market economy, China still lacks political institutions capable of suppressing the rampant corruption that permeates its society, such as bribery, self-dealing, purchase of government positions and promotions, as well as widespread theft of intellectual property.
The framework for this corrupt system is built on the close relationships between senior party officials and business leaders, carried out under the powerful hand of the party’s Central Organization Department (COD). To paraphrase journalist and author Richard McGregor, just imagine a parallel body in Washington, D.C. This American counterpart to the COD would oversee the appointment of the entire U.S. Cabinet, state governors, mayors of major cities, heads of federal agencies, chief executives of corporations, Supreme Court justices, editors of newspapers, bosses of TV networks and presidents of leading universities.
The Communist Party shows no inclination to embrace Western legal reforms to dismantle this incestuous formula for corrupt dealing. Chinese civilization has traditionally viewed law as an instrument of the emperor in ruling his people, not something to which he, as the Son of Heaven, was subordinate. Today, as a Chinese scholar explains, “Laws in China are used as a tool of the government to control the society rather than as a tool of the society to control the government.” It is rule by law, not rule of law.
But in the words of Confucius, “If the people have no confidence in their government, it cannot stand.” Thus, over a millennium before Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, Confucius articulated the “Right of Revolution” against unworthy emperors. That Right of Revolution was front and center in the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – the party’s near-death experience.
In the wake of that crisis, China has forged nothing short of an economic miracle. Yet this transformed economy, when coupled with ineffective law enforcement, a muzzled press and the absence of political competition, has created a fertile ground for corruption. The cost to modern China’s economic development has been described as a multibillion-dollar-a-year scam that is eroding the efficiency of almost every organ of the party and state.
More fundamentally, corruption has eaten away at China’s social capital -- the “glue” that allows members of a society to cooperate and underpins successful market economies and free societies. But China’s social capital, already traumatized by Mao’s totalitarian terrors, has been wounded again by the surge in corruption at all levels of society.
In the face of comatose Marxist ideology, corruption and slowing economic growth, President Xi’s new “Chinese dream” emphasizes China’s rise to renewed national greatness, reinforced with a vigorous appeal to nationalism. But, as Mr. Xi says, “The Chinese dream is an ideal, and that is Communism.” This is a frightening message to reform-minded Chinese.
The party’s dilemma in dealing with corruption calls to mind the wisdom of both Confucius and Thomas Jefferson. As noted earlier, Confucius concluded that a government without the people’s confidence cannot stand. Today, public confidence in the party’s integrity hangs from a very slender thread. President Jefferson added a vital corollary: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” The party utterly fails that test today.
History will record whether the future of this remarkable civilization-state will be tumultuous or peaceful. Given China’s immense importance to today’s global society, let us hope for a peaceful and effective resolution of China’s crisis of corruption.
George Peirce is an attorney and retired U.S. Army colonel who has also served in the Justice Department and as the general counsel for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of West Point, Harvard Law School, the National Intelligence University and the U.S Army War College. He will be appearing on two panels at the upcoming St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.