Written by Ping Shum and Zheng Yongnian.
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) plays an increasing role in fighting corruption worldwide. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has extended e-government in the fight against crime and against corruption in particular.
By promoting Internet anti-corruption efforts and encouraging the general public to participate, the Chinese party-state under Xi Jinping’s leadership has projected an image of caring for people’s concerns and combating corruption. This not only meets the demand of public opinion but also serves as a way for the central leadership to control the state.
Corruption is one of the problems the CCP has faced ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. With the introduction of reforms and an open door policy in 1978, China has experienced rapid economic growth. One of the inevitable by-products of a socialist market economy is widespread corruption.
Although CCP’s top leaders have over the past three decades emphasised the importance of combating corruption and launched a series of anti-corruption campaigns, the situation did not improve considerably. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International, China’s ranking in the world has been on a steady decline, from 41st in 1997 to 100th in 2014, indicating a deteriorating international perception.
The Internet has diversified information sources and changed the information flow from one-way to two-way. Public opinion formulated in the cyberworld has translated into public pressure and, on many occasions, brought down corrupt officials or forced the party-state to adjust its policies. Although ICT have given netizens more leverage to influence state’s policies, it has also provided the party-state with new opportunities to utilise the Internet to better serve the people and direct public opinion, increase transparency and promote better governance.
The party-state has recognised the importance of the Internet as a new tool in fighting corruption for several years. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate established a team in 2008 that specialises in collecting corruption data as well as monitoring online public opinion on corruption issues. In 2010, the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) called for the expansion of (online) channels to make it easier for people to participate in fighting corruption. China’s first white paper on corruption, which was released in the end of 2010, reiterated the importance of the Internet as a new tool in the campaign against corruption.
Instead of pushing reform, promoting greater transparency or enhancing government accountability, the emphasis of China’s Internet anti-corruption campaign is on encouraging netizens to report corruption via official channels rather than via social media. Corruption cases posted on social media can be read by everyone and disseminated in a split second, whereas cases reported on an official website cannot be seen by anyone other than the official handling the case. As well as an attempt to centralise the once decentralised anti-corruption platform, it is also a move to reduce the transparency of netizens’ reports on corruption.
In April 2013 news websites of major state media, such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily, and mainstream commercial portal sites, such as Sina and Sohu, provided links to five government websites for reporting corruption. Traffic to the website set up by the CCP’s Organisation Department increased from 6,000 per day to more than 20,000 and it received 100 tip-offs from netizens daily by September 2013.
On 2 September 2013, five official websites dealing with anti-corruption were integrated into one and relaunched. The new website is smart phone- and tablet-friendly. An associated official Weibo account and Wechat service for mobile phone users were also scheduled to open later on. The main website consists of ten sections, including information on anti-corruption campaigns and investigations, as well as an online forum for netizens for leaving comments, making proposals and filing inquiries. One of the most important sections of the website is dedicated to reports of corruption cases where an informant may choose whether to report to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection or its local branches, depending on the location of the informant.
China’s state media have called the new integrated anti-corruption website a ‘regular army’, comparing it to the haphazard nature of non-official anti-corruption reports. This ‘regular army’ is said to minimise the chance of slander, sometimes characteristic of reports given through non-official channels. While social media platforms are run by commercial companies beyond the direct control of the state, the strategy adopted by the party-state, of encouraging netizens to participate in combating corruption, are the party’s attempts to bring the public to its own websites. As the common wisdom goes, ‘if you can beat them, join them’.
In fact, it has become a norm in the post-Deng Xiaoping era that whoever succeeds as China’s top leader takes a strong position in fighting corruption at the beginning of their term. Punishing corrupt officials and pushing an anti-corruption campaign also help establish the authority of the central government as well as the new leader. Jailing ‘corrupt’ officials is at the same time a common expression of party infighting and the reshuffling of power within its ranks. In this view, fighting corruption can be seen as a double-edged sword: not only is the new leader seen as tough on corruption, but he also consolidates power by removing political opponents. However, such campaigns fail to protect ordinary citizens from corruption, especially at the local governance level.
Although Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have each brought down a member of the CCP’s Politburo on corruption charges, without genuine political reform and independent media to provide checks and balances the effectiveness of the campaign is questionable. While the party-state found it difficult, if not impossible, to control social media, it utilised the opportunities brought by ICT to centralise an anti-corruption platform to serve its interests.
In short, the CCP has tried to centralise the way anti-corruption investigations are conducted by discouraging the publicly exposure of officials’ wrongdoing via social media and urging netizens to report corruption cases to the state directly through the government website. By promoting Internet anti-corruption efforts and encouraging the general public to participate, the CCP projected an image of sharing a common goal with the people.
Ping Shum is a PhD candidate at King’s College London-National University of Singapore. Zheng Yongnian is Professor and Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. This article is an excerpt from SHUM, Ping and ZHENG, Yongnian. 2014. ‘Information and communications technology and the transformation of the Chinese Communist Party’, in Anthony Butler ed. Remaking the ANC: Party Change in South Africa and the Global South, Jacana Media. pp.84-100. Image Credit: CC by Day Donaldson/Flickr.