Need for oversight
Effective supervision is key to ensure those with power do not abuse it.
The 18th Party Congress emphasized to an unprecedented extent the importance of fighting corruption. The concluding report pointed out that, “the problem (of corruption), if not well solved, might cause fatal damage to the Party, even lead to its downfall”.
An anti-corruption campaign was launched soon after the congress, and the fall of several ministeriallevel officials, some of whom were investigated after tip-offs from the public, has raised expectations of cleaner officialdom.
However, the question of how to strike corruption at the root remains to be answered. Fighting corruption has been a task for probably every dynasty since the first centralized state was founded in China more than 2,000 years ago. The problem has proved impossible to eradicate. So what needs to be done if China is to root it out?
“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The famous words of British historian Lord Acton reveal the interrelation of corruption and power. Power is necessary in regulating the distribution of interests and duties in human society; but it is controlled by humans who have their own interests. Without proper supervision those invested with power can all too easily abuse it for their own self-interests.
It is likely that corruption has existed in every regime throughout history, so in a sense corruption itself is normal. However, if corruption is found to have eroded multiple parts of the State apparatus and involved many officials, there must be problems with the system.
Such systemic corruption is often caused by deficiencies in the design of the power system, in which the lack of supervision indulges those with power who seek their own gains. If this is the case, it is imperative to restructure the system so that power is supervised.
The new leadership has realized this. At a meeting of the Party’s corruption-buster, the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, in February, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Party, promised to “shut power in the cage of the system”, and Wang Qishan, who is in charge of the commission, said innovations of the system are required to prevent corruption.
Echoing their calls, people have proposed various changes to the system, but these have been mostly at the micro-level and would only be able to partially solve the problem. In order to effectively combat the corruption that exists in the system, a top-level design that includes supervision and restrictions on the implementation of power is needed. To be exact, the only way to combat corruption is to supervise and control the exercising of power throughout the system, from top to bottom.
The net of supervision over power should be weaved of both vertical and horizontal lines. Vertically, individuals invested with power must be selected through strict processes, their behavior must be supervised, and they are responsible for what they do with their power.
Horizontally, power should be divided into different parts that can supervise and limit each other; and external forces, such as the public, the media and social organizations, should have the right to supervise power against any possible misuse. To make sure the supervision from external forces can be effective, power must be implemented in a transparent way, while the supervising bodies must be independent.
This net of supervision will supervise power in all its processes, thus preventing it being abused for illegal interests. The whole net must consist of different parts, so that if one part fails the other parts can still be effective. Some argue this might lower the efficiency of the system, but actually it is corruption that poses the most harm to efficiency and hurts justice in the long run.
Rule of law is a necessary prerequisite to weaving the net of supervision. The 18th Party Congress also highlighted this point in its concluding report saying, “no individual or organization shall have any privilege over the constitution and the laws.”
Under the rule of man, officials enjoy privilege over the laws, whether to punish somebody is decided by their will, not the law. Under the rule of law, officials will no longer be able to escape the penalties if they break the law. In one word, rule of law is an inflexible system that does not distinguish between different lawbreakers, while rule of man often implements laws selectively based on who breaks them.
China has punished many corrupt officials over the decades, but still corruption is getting worse; one reason for this is selective judiciary has dispelled the people’s, as well as officials’, trust in the law.
The first step toward rule of law should be winning back the people’s trust in the system; that needs cooperation from both within and without. The authorities should be just and transparent in enforcing the law, while the media and the public should participate in supervising officials. Only with the joint efforts of all can an inflexible, trustworthy system be established that will be effective against corruption in the long run. The Chinese version of this article first appeared on Study Times.