While on the international scene both China and Vietnam seem loath to find a speedy solution to their territorial disputes, on the domestic front both are facing similar concerns which they are keen to resolve.
Some have suggested that fast economic liberalisation, accompanied by a lack of institutionalisation, has created a fertile ground for corruption. As China opened up, people of all stripes sought to make a quick buck. And progressively, party discipline weakened, owing to what Lu Xiaobo calls ‘involution’: the failure of the party to build a rational-administrative state and/or to shore up its revolutionary spirit. Top-down control is now weakening, as is the opportunity to enforce state policy effectively. At the same time, decentralisation of state powers provides local party cadres with an opportunity to amass personal fortunes, power and discretion, opening the door to greater impunity.
In allowing the country to liberalise, the Chinese Communist Party gave so much away that its control over the entire process is progressively withering away. This governability crisis is equally at play in Vietnam, where decentralisation has also empowered local party chiefs. At the central level, the party is split between Prime Minister Dung, the president, the party secretary-general and their respective acolytes. On the one hand, corruption can be used as a political tool to weaken enemies, exemplified in mid to late 2012 when business tycoons closely linked to the Prime Minister were arrested. On the other, corruption in both countries is the glue that still keeps the parties (and thus the systems) together. Both China and Vietnam are therefore enveloped in a self-destructive logic: to survive, corruption has to be accepted, if not encouraged. And yet now, rather than being seen merely as a by-product of economic growth, corruption is seen as a problem — in the eyes of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, the problem — that may well destabilise both society and the party (both mentioned corruption profusely during the 18th Congress of the Communist Party).
It is still unknown whether political leaders will truly take stock of the problem. Addressing corruption could prove a perilous exercise. The parties must pull off a fine balancing act, ensuring that they address corruption and public discontent (over growing social inequalities; rising living costs; pollution; and access to land, which has sparked important protests), all the while ensuring they do not saw off the branch upon which they sit.
Anti-corruption investigations seem to be on the increase, buttressed by the 18th Congress and Xi’s resolute tone to cut down on the excesses. Yet, clearly, the preferred solution so far has not been full political liberalisation or rule of law, but rather rule by law, allowing governments to draw on the law as a way to govern in relatively unconstrained ways. There is an impressive amount of anti-corruption provisions in China (by some accounts, over 1200 laws and regulations). A number of pilots have been implemented since 2008 at the city and provincial levels requiring public officials to disclose their and their families’ assets – in Guangdong Province, a pilot will even open asset disclosure to the public. China has introduced rotating provincial anti-corruption chiefs and instructed that anti-corruption chiefs in ministries, agencies and state-owned enterprises report directly to the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. A new five-year anti-corruption plan is being prepared, and Wang Qishan, an advocate of financial and economic reforms who is often depicted as a ‘troubleshooter’, has just been appointed anti-corruption czar in the new government. In Vietnam, the National Assembly has just amended the 2005 Anti-Corruption Law, and the party recently brought anti-corruption back under its fold, an area which was hitherto controlled by the prime minister through the Office of the Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption. The Vietnamese National Assembly also passed a new law that will see top officials face a parliamentary confidence vote every year.
Of course, there are still doubts about the efficiency of some of these measures. Anti-corruption activities can easily be seen as an attempt by the elites to soothe social grievances rather than implement genuine reforms, and anti-corruption campaigns in China are almost as old as the party itself. In reality, those preaching anti-corruption are, to say the least, not always practicing what they preach. Doubts have been raised about the fortunes amassed by Prime Minister Dung and his inner circle, as well as those of outgoing Prime Minister Wen and incoming President Xi.
Despite the similarities, it would be wrong to assume that both countries can only progress in the same direction. It is quite likely China and Vietnam will need to find their own idiosyncratic ways to tackle corruption. China is a large nation with immeasurable influence on the world stage. This adds a particular dimension that does not exist in Vietnam, where there is evidence of policy being influenced by bottom-up pressures. Under the right conditions, this may well hold the key to remedying corruption. The Internet as a means of citizen-pressure and monitoring against abusive leaders is another important tool, and has already proven it can be used efficiently to bring down corrupt party officials.
Mathieu Tromme is an anti-corruption specialist and is affiliated to the Partnership for Research in International Affairs and Development. East Asia Forum