China's National People's Congress, which runs Mar. 5-14 in Beijing, focuses on two crucial economic challenges: containing inflation and raising incomes. Yet Premier Wen Jiabao's opening review of the government work report—China's version of the State of the Union—revealed another concern. "Rampant corruption in some areas" has emerged in China, Wen warned close to 3,000 Congress members in a nationwide broadcast.
The work report, available on government websites, is a compendium of everything that infuriates your average Chinese citizen. There's the use of expensive foreign cars by officials; excessive wining and dining by civil servants at public expense; and the practice by top bureaucrats' families of using their connections to enrich themselves.
Also cited are "illegal land expropriations and housing demolitions"—when local officials seize farmland and older housing from the poor, often for redevelopment into high-end apartment towers. "The people detest corruption, which has somehow discredited the government among the people," said Xia Ji'en, a congressional deputy attending the session, according to the Mar. 6 edition of the official China Daily. The fact that rage at graft fueled the sudden uprisings in the Middle East "is very much on the minds of Chinese leaders," says Cheng Li, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has studied China's ruling class.
Wen is pledging solutions. He announced his government's intention to "reduce the number of meetings and documents and streamline and standardize all sorts of activities," including "forums and celebrations" for officials. "We will resolutely oppose extravagance, waste, and formalism," he said, adding that the government will strive to freeze budgets this year for overseas travel, entertainment, and automobile purchases. (Formalism is jargon for paying lip service to the party's tenets.)
The abuse of official cars is especially galling. In February the Finance Ministry posted new accounting guidelines for officials on vehicle purchases and related expenses. China's central and local governments own more than 2 million cars, each of which costs from 60,000 to 100,000 yuan ($9,100 to $15,000) a year to run, says a February report in the official Beijing Review. All told, operating this fleet costs as much as $29 billion, estimated the Review. Chinese officialdom's vehicle of choice, the black Audi A6 with tinted windows, was on clear display at the Congress: Scores were parked outside the Great Hall of the People during Wen's speech.
Wen called for a stricter standardization of wages and bonuses for executives in state-owned companies and warned that his ministers would "resolutely prohibit illicit income" for both government and private sector employees. The problem of officials hiding income and properties by transferring them to relatives is clearly growing, says Brookings's Li. China's Netizens even coined a term to describe those who benefit from their parents' official position: guan'erdai—literally, the second generation born to parents serving in the government. "We will implement a system whereby leading cadres will regularly report their incomes, real estate, and investments, as well as what their spouses and children do and whether they live abroad," Wen said.
There are signs the government is serious about cracking down. In December the State Council issued China's first-ever white paper on corruption. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced at the same time that it had investigated 119,000 graft cases in the first 11 months of last year. In February, Liu Zhijun, the Minister of Railways, was dismissed and placed under investigation for "severe violations of discipline," language usually used in corruption cases.
It's clear why Beijing is turning up the heat. In a recent survey by Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group, close to 60 percent of urban Chinese said that the No. 1 factor explaining their lack of success was not knowing the right people. "Poor people feel they don't get chances to benefit from the system," says founder and Chairman Victor Yuan.
Many are skeptical of any crackdown. Political scientists such as Li wonder how a government that has its own serious corruption problems can ever effectively police its colleagues. The fight against corruption "is like an empty promise," says Li. "That's how most Chinese people perceive it. "
The bottom line: Although China's top leaders have publicly vowed to stamp out official corruption, it will be hard to eliminate widespread practices.