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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.

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