Holidays bring warning messages: a Chinese approach to stopping graft

In the holiday season in China, public officials receive messages from the anti-graft watchdog warning them that “gift-giving is not allowed during the holidays”. Yang Wu, a PhD researcher at the CSC, explains the logic behind the messages

With the holiday season coming to an end (the Mid-Autumn Festival on 13-15 September and the National Day holidays on 1-7 October), the top anti-corruption department has been focused on investigating public officials who violate the Party’s discipline, the eight-point frugality code. Party members and public officials have received text messages to remind them to avoid corruption during the holidays. The forbidden acts are detailed as, “any forms of gift-giving is forbidden, including mooncakes, mooncake vouchers, gift cards, banquets etc.” “To secure a clean atmosphere to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China”, as the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) puts it, the warnings will get more intense as the holidays near.

These messages of warning are not new to Chinese public officials. The Chinese anti-graft department works very hard on education to prevent (or protect) public officials from violating the Party’s disciplines or even laws. And warnings are considered to be one of the most effective precautionary approaches to curb officials’ luxurious lifestyles and excess bureaucracy. Since late 2012 when the anti-corruption campaign started, these warning messages from the anti-graft department have provided regular reminders for officials about being self-cautious and consciously keeping away from any graft acts.

As an anti-corruption strategy, the warning messages have four aspects.

First of all, they focus on high-incidence seasons for graft. Giving gifts on festivals is a cultural tradition to show one’s decency, but they are also used instrumentally to get help from a well-positioned person. If you want to get promoted or you have some issues where you need help, you won’t want to miss this opportunity. No wonder that among Chinese public officials, gift-giving becomes particularly rampant ahead of holidays, as everyone is busy “receiving” and “giving”. So, to target the holiday period makes sense.

Second, the warnings list all the graft scenarios that might happen during holidays, and forbid them all. Graft-acts are described in the messages down to such detail as “giving mooncakes”, “having banquets” or “playing Mahjong”, in order to make the “corruption list” more targeted and easy to benchmark. By providing this “corruption list”, the anti-graft department seeks to set the boundary between a friendly gesture of cultural tradition and real graft or corrupt exchange. They aim to rule out ambiguity.

Third, the messages make clear how they are going to investigate the misconduct and what the punishment will be. The main approach here is whistleblowing. The anti-graft departments at all levels encourage the public to report information about public officials who act with excessive bureaucracy, hedonism or extravagance during the holidays. They establish a hotline and accept anonymous and real-name tip-off letters. According to the CDIC, once they discover such cases, they will “immediately investigate the involved officials and expose their alleged corruption cases in a timely manner to warn others”. They mention this in the message as a deterrent, which in other words is saying: “watch your behavior! The masses are watching you.” Officials will at least hesitate a bit when they see these words.

Fourth, the strategy makes the most of new social media. The public officials’ everyday practice on holiday is no longer a vacuum, but rather they can be reached through smart-phone social networks applications. During holidays, officials might not reply to phone calls or emails but they will definitely check their social network accounts. The warning messages can undoubtedly reach everyone through Wechat (Chinese version of WhatsApp) or other apps. There is no place to hide even on holiday.

Does this achieve anything, in terms of curbing corruption and misconduct? Statistics from the CDIC annual report show that 92,215 officials were investigated for violations of the eight-point frugality code in 2018, a 27.5% increase on 2017. And in the first half of this year, 37,207 officials involved in 26,341 cases were put under investigation.

Nevertheless, questions remain. To what degree do these precautions restrain culturally rooted graft behavior? Could it ever be eliminated? Or will graft acts like gift-giving simply become more subtle and difficult to discover? Last but not least, is the Chinese anti-graft department thinking about what is behind corrupt exchanges, and why corruption and misconduct happen in the beginning? Or will it just keep sending warnings and adding new graft acts to the “forbidden list”?

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