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China's challenge with corruption

China's leaders have been decrying corruption - and doing very little about it - for decades. But some corruption experts say there may be reason for a little more hope this time around.


Incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping, shown shortly after his ascension as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party. He has made corruption a top priority.

Vincent Yu/AP/File

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Just two years after he founded Communist China, in December 1951, Mao Zedong issued one of his characteristically forthright directives. "We must probably execute 10,000 to tens of thousands of these embezzlers before we solve the problem," he wrote.

The “problem” was corruption, and 60 years later it has not gone away. As he takes the reins, the newest leader of China’s ruling Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is himself making the issue his number one talking point.

Corruption – perhaps the ordinary Chinese citizen’s single biggest complaint against his rulers – “will inevitably doom the party and the state” unless it is curbed, Mr. Xi warned the first meeting of the newly chosen 25 member Politburo last weekend. “All behavior that violates party discipline or the law should be punished without mercy.”

Turning that talk into action, however, will be a tall order in a country where gift-giving is a pillar of traditional culture, a single political party has a stranglehold on power, and bribery is pervasive from top to bottom of society. Some 668,000 party members have been punished for corruption in the past five years, according to official figures that represent only the tip of the iceberg, experts say.

“Controlling corruption will be a huge challenge for any regime,” says Lu Xiaobo, a professor at Barnard, Columbia, who has written a book about official corruption in China. “Realizing that it’s a problem and making it a priority does not necessarily mean they will be successful” in fighting it.


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