A sensational news item appeared in China last week. Authorities reported that they had seized $14.5 billion in assets from associates of Zhou Yongkang, a retired Politburo member. The politburo is a nine member group that governs the country as the supreme authority. It includes the president, the prime minister, the chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) among others. Zhou controlled China's vast internal security office (read Home Ministry), which has a budget more than the Ministry of Defense of China. Thus Zhou's conviction means the purging of the most important man in the People's Republic for corruption.
Last week, prosecutors formally charged General Gu, who was until recently the Deputy Chief of the PLA General Logistics Department, with bribery, embezzlement, misuse of state funds and abuse of power. He had enormous influence over contracts and procurement of the world's largest army. China has so far prosecuted hundreds of communist party bigwigs and PLA leaders for corruption.
So what is happening in China? Those who follow developments there know that President Xi Jinping is leading a sustained campaign against big time corruption. Before he became president, he had pledged to take robust steps to curb corruption within the Communist Party and the PLA. The prime minister had declared recently that together they would go after 'flies and tigers' who indulged in corruption.
President Xi knows well that if he is to remain in power he must clear the country of corruption. He remembers that the protests that led to the crackdown in Tianenmen Square in the 1980's were because of the complaints about corruption by the people and students. He wants the PLA to be a lean and mean fighting force capable of projecting power in the world. With corrupt generals, he will not be able do so. He also does not want anyone pointing an accusing finger at the Communist Party, which will degrade it before the people and bring down his rule. So he has started a system of monitoring all local government expenditures as well as financial institutions. Audits and investigative reporting have been introduced and he has encouraged party cadres and PLA to self-criticise anti-corruption measures.
But President Xi is aware that he faces a great risk in attacking corruption. The old guard in the party are not happy with what he is doing so stridently. Many of them, or their sons and grandsons, are part of this corruption nexus. Also, his political rivals are already speaking up and stating that it is being done to dislodge his political colleagues. Many of them are digging up the past and the present activities of the president in order to accuse him of any malfeasance.
Historically, corruption is not new in China. The spread of corruption had been connected to the Confucian concept that profit was a preoccupation of base people. According to them, true followers of Confucianism are to be guided in their actions by moral principles of justice. But this high standard of morality could only be delivered by a minority. Wang Anshi, a Chinese economist of the Song dynasty (1021-1086), therefore wanted to institutionalise a monetary system for the state in order to reduce corruption. He was derided by the Confucian elite. Slowly, therefore, corruption spread to the Imperial court and also among the elite. During the Tang dynasty the imperial examination system was polluted with corruption. When China became a republic in 1949, corruption was not so pervasive. But when Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer in 1979, started his economic policy changes it was widely accepted that corruption was the price that was to be paid for economic development.
Can Bangladesh learn anything from the great exercise against corruption taking place in nearby China? Our country ranks 136th in the global corruption perception index out of 178 countries (2013). This is much worse than China, which ranks 80th. Transparency International, in its 2012 'Global Corruption Barometer,' placed our political parties followed by the police and the judiciary on top of the corruption list. But the silver lining in all this is that the people here are keen to see the end of corruption.
We must, therefore, consider unleashing social forces against corruption. There must be total political commitment at the highest level to end corruption. It also means that our constitutional bodies as well as state agencies like the Anti- Corruption Commission should be adequately empowered as well as funded to implement policies that contain corruption. Our investigative agencies and secret services as well as our judicial system, especially the procurate, should be fully geared to this task.Our youth must be inspired to fight corruption. This can be done when TV programmes, books, films and the social media work in tandem on this issue. Educational curriculum should also include anti-corruption themes.
Perhaps one of the best ways to combat corruption is to create a healthy and competitive business atmosphere. A policy that rewards fair competition and punishes those who violate the principles of good competition will go a long way in combating corruption. Isn't all this in consonance with the spirit of our Independence, in which fairness and equality are cardinal principles of state policies?
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.