This week I was in Hong Kong, where the government is pushing its “zero tolerance” anti-corruption campaign through ubiquitous ads and billboards. It’s an interesting development for the city, where money and connections have always gotten things done. But it echoes the anti-corruption drive on China’s mainland, perhaps for good reason.
The government in Beijing has made the fight against corruption one of its hallmarks through a series of high-profile cases involving local and provincial officials. The fight has a populist angle, which is important for a non-democratic government trying to reign over a vast nation.
Between the headlines, the message is that the politicians in power are sticking up for the little guy – in other words, that they are worthy of the little guy’s trust. Yet that’s only part of how the campaign helps the government. Cleaning out corruption means creating more transparency in local and provincial bureaucracies, and thus more accountability.
As these changes take place, it becomes easier for Beijing to monitor every corner of the country. We often think of anti-corruption measures as part of the improvement of democracy, but China has apparently realized that they can also help an authoritarian government to maintain – and even to extend – its control.
Copyright 2008 Daniel Altman. All rights reserved.