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Corruption in China

The Chinaleaks papers reveal a tangled web of irregularities flourishing under the regime

The leaking of millions of files on the hidden fortunes of well-known members of Chinese society has uncovered part of the immense web of abuses, law-breaking and rackets that are fueled by the world’s second-largest economy. The massive use of secret bank accounts in tax havens involves politicians, businessmen, managers of public companies and 13 relatives of high-ranking officials and leaders of the Communist Party, including the present president, Xi Jinping.

At the same time that a number of international media outlets — including EL PAÍS — published these documents on Wednesday, a trial began in Beijing against the lawyer Xu Zhiyong, the leader of a citizen’s movement against corruption. The coincidence of the two events highlights the cynical attitude of a political class that does not even bother to keep up appearances. Xu, arrested last July, faces five years in prison for “disturbing public order.” This is how the authorities describe the initiatives of the activists in favor of transparency, demanding that public officials declare their assets.

China liberalized its economy while maintaining the dictatorial rule of a single party, and this has given rise to enormous dysfunctions. The country’s impressive economic liftoff — which, while slowing somewhat now, has raised millions of Chinese out of poverty — has been accompanied by burgeoning proliferation of inequalities — social and geographic — corruption, pollution and speculative building.

The data contained in Chinaleaks, which came from management firms operating in tax havens, only confirm the all-too-obvious enrichment of the ruling class, which has long been public knowledge. This phenomenon was already clear from the Chinese billionaires list, not to mention the ostentatious parade of high fashion that now takes place at the Communist Party Congress and the People’s Assembly. And these anecdotal impressions are amply corroborated by previous investigations, such as that published in 2012 by The New York Times, which revealed that the fortune of the family of the former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao amounted to some two billion euros.

“Tigers and flies”

Aware of the growing malaise in Chinese society, President Xi last year declared war on corruption, and promised to prosecute “tigers and flies.” Plenty of flies have been swatted, but so far the few tigers that have been caught or cornered — such as Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang — just happen to be his political rivals. This is not an encouraging sign; nor is it positive that Beijing’s reaction to the Chinaleaks scandal has been an information blackout, including the blockage of the webpages of international news media offering information on the case. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said “it will be demonstrated that the clean are clean, and the dirty, dirty” — as if seeking to draw a distinction between the politicians and their embarrassing relatives.

In order to really fight corruption, and clean up the politics and economy of China, it is going to be necessary — though not sufficient — to dismantle the regime of the single party. What is propitiating and fostering all these abuses is the absence of freedom, transparency and supervisory controls.

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