Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Swatting flies? Beijing's fight to root out corruption

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 0854 GMT (1654 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jilted mistresses have become key weapon in exposing graft
  • Fighting corruption a key policy of Chinese President Xi Jinping
  • Campaign has not been effective, with few high-profile targets
  • Party fixes its focus on petty officialdom, banning lavish banquets and gifts

Editor's note: This month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout examines the country's fight against corruption and premieres on Wednesday, October 16 at 5.30pm Hong Kong time. Click here for air times.

Hong Kong (CNN) -- In China, a sex scandal is often more than just a sex scandal -- because it often involves public money.

So jilted mistresses have stepped forward as graft-busters in China's crackdown on corruption.

Consider the fate of Liu Tienan. The party official lost his job earlier this year after a former mistress revealed he had embezzled $200 million from banks.

"They have become the most effective way in combating corruption," says social commentator and author Lijia Zhang.

On China: Reform
On China: Tigers and flies

"And when these mistresses become the most effective way, that means the government crackdown hasn't been very effective."

China's anti-corruption drive has targeted so-called "tigers and flies" -- the powerful leaders and lowly officials who are defrauding the nation.

Party at stake

With the very legitimacy of the Communist Party at stake, the fight against graft has been a main focus of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with his anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan at his side.

But how effective has it been?

Putting aside the widely publicized fall of Bo Xilai, which is viewed by many as the result of an internal power struggle, the Party has yet to make a significant number of high-level corruption take-downs.

"Xi Jinping has only caught one tiger, a very powerful former head of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)," says political analyst and scholar Willy Lam, referring to Jiang Jiemin, the former CNPC chief, who also held massive control over China's state-owned firms.

China-watchers are keeping a close eye on a far bigger beast -- China's high-ranking ex-security chief, Zhou Yongkang.

Author and social commentator Lijia Zhang
Author and social commentator Lijia Zhang

"At least half of the vice-ministerial and ministerial levels who Xi Jinping has brought to justice have close connections to Zhou Yongkang," Lam tells me. "This is an important litmus test as to whether Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping are willing to break certain conventions.

"Because there is one well-known convention within the Communist Party ... former and current officials of the Politburo Standing Committee are untouchable."

No rule of law

They are untouchable due to the lack of checks and balances in China.

"It's like if a person is ill, he takes his own pulse, prescribes his own medicine, he takes an X-ray on himself and then -- if need be -- he will operate on himself," says Reuters' Beijing-based correspondent Benjamin Lim.

"That's not possible, but that's what is happening in China."

China's political elite is also untouchable thanks to China's lack of rule of law.

"There is no rule of law, so people who have good 'guanxi,' people who have good connections with the co-called 'red aristocracy' -- or top officials -- can grease the palms of the officials to get things done and jump the queue," says Lam.

Without the rule of law or a powerful independent organization against corruption, prospects for reform in China are dim.

"There will not be meaningful real reform," says Zhang. "Because general reform will require a leader who will have courage and will hurt the interests of his family and friends."

"Xi Jinping has to become strong in order to reform," adds Lim. "But of course if he becomes strong, he may not reform."

Easy targets

Political Analyst Willy Lam
Political Analyst Willy Lam

Meanwhile, the Party fixes its focus on lower, easy-to-reach targets -- going after petty officialdom with an austerity drive targeting luxury spending.

"At the end of the day, Xi Jinping's policy of restricting conspicuous consumption, putting an end to banquets and six star hotels, is popular," says Lam.

"Nonetheless, regarding big-time corruption that means the passing of the envelope and greasing the palm through a billion-yuan kickback -- all of this continues to go on."

China's war on corruption is merely the swatting of flies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT