China's Xi fails to earn stripes as anti-graft "tiger" hunt underwhelms

Reuters

* Fewer graft prosecutions this year, official data shows

* Number of senior officials investigated similar to prioryears

* Xi Jinping has vowed to go after "tigers", or seniorofficials

* But might be cautious to avoid destabilising party -experts

* Corruption is endemic in China

By Adam Rose

BEIJING, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping hasraised expectations he will tackle corruption much moreforcefully than his predecessors, but official data oninvestigations suggests the crackdown so far is little differentto previous years.

Authorities have opened a similar number of corruptionprobes in 2013 to last year, data from the Supreme People'sProcuratorate (SPP), which oversees criminal investigations andprosecutions nationwide, shows.

According to a Reuters analysis of the data, authoritieshave prosecuted far fewer people this year compared to the pastfive years, while the number of senior officials beinginvestigated is on track to match those in prior periods.

Such statistics are at odds with the frequent trumpeting ofXi's anti-graft campaign by Chinese state media. Since he tookover the ruling Communist Party a year ago, Xi has vowed to rootout endemic corruption by catching "tigers", or seniorofficials, and not just lowly "flies".

Xi might be treading carefully since putting too manyofficials behind bars could paralyse decision-making across thegovernment and the party, experts said.

"They don't want everybody worried about being arrested.That would be a disaster for the party," said Yuhua Wang, aChina corruption expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

A remarkably similar number of corruption investigationseach year over the past decade suggests authorities might evenhave minimum targets to meet, some experts said.

Xi could surprise, as he did earlier this month withfar-reaching economic and social reforms announced at the end ofa conclave of senior leaders, if his crackdown gathers steam inthe coming year and prosecutions jump.

For now, experts said authorities had yet to demonstrate thecampaign was anything other than business as usual.

"Anti-corruption campaigns are in large part exercises inpure public relations," said Andrew Wedeman, a professor atGeorgia State University who has written a book on corruption inChina. "You need a few pelts."

"SHOCK AND AWE"

Graft oils the wheels of the government and party at almostevery level in China, which ranked 80th out of 176 countries andterritories on Transparency International's 2012 corruptionperceptions index, where a higher ranking means a cleaner publicsector.

Like almost all his predecessors, Xi has said corruptionthreatens the party's very existence.

Spearheading his crackdown is Wang Qishan, head of theparty's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).Wang warned party investigators last month that their jobs wereon the line if they failed to root out corruption, telling themto use "shock and awe" on their targets.

The party said this month it plans to set up a database torecord information on the income and property of partyofficials. It has said nothing about making the income databasepublic.

The central discipline commission, however, did hold itsfirst news conference ever in January and launched a website inSeptember that allows the public to report alleged misbehaviour.

Some analysts expect further reforms to the commission couldbe in the works, which might affect its approach to fightingcorruption.

Neither the government nor the commission responded toqueries about the anti-corruption campaign or the SPP data.

"I think they genuinely want to fight corruption," said ZhuJiangnan at the University of Hong Kong, who researchescorruption in China. "There's certainly been an increase intransparency."

GRAFT BY THE NUMBERS

Last year, government authorities investigated 35,648 peoplefor corruption, based on data in publicly available SPP workreports that covered the 2008-2012 period.

As of the end of August, 30,938 investigations have beenopened. That was up 4 percent compared to the same period lastyear, the SPP said in its official newspaper last month.

And from 2011 to 2012, the number of investigations rose 6percent, suggesting marginal growth in the number of probes islikely for all of 2013.

"My hunch is that the year-end figures for 2013 will bepretty close to the totals for 2012," said Wedeman, who studiesthe SPP data.

"Past experience suggests that part-year figures oftenoverstate the actual annual increase."

The central discipline commission and its regional branchesalso carry out corruption investigations, but only of partymembers. The commission has not released data on the totalnumber of graft cases this year, which are dealt withinternally. A fraction are handed over to prosecutors.

Zhu said the commission was "extremely overloaded".

"The CCDI's staff hasn't markedly increased ... They facethe limits of manpower," she said.

At the same time, the government had prosecuted half thenumber of officials investigated for corruption during the firsteight months of the year. From 2008 to 2012, it was 90 percent,SPP data shows.

China had investigated 129 officials at thedepartmental-bureau level and above for corruption during theJanuary-August period, according to the SPP's newspaper. Ifinvestigations remain steady, that would mean roughly 194 forthe full year.

The annual average over the five years to 2012 was 186, orjust over one high-level official per city with a population ofone million people.

At the vice-ministerial level and above, China has announcedcriminal investigations into four top leaders this year. Twoother unnamed leaders were mentioned in a party legal newspaperin August. The annual average from 2008-2012 was six.

And while at least eight leaders ranked vice-minister orabove have been investigated by the discipline commission andremoved from office up to November of this year for violationsof party discipline, often a codeword for corruption, at least10 were toppled in 2009. Such moves, announced by state media,precede any criminal investigation.

Experts said this year's numbers suggested the anti-graftdrive may be more about bolstering the party's image given theattention in state media to the government's success in catchingoffenders.

"I think the goal of the anti-corruption campaign is toestablish more legitimacy for the party. The goal ... is not toarrest more people," said Wang, from the University ofPennsylvania.

TARGETS AND TIGERS

Meanwhile, the number of people investigated for corruptionhas remained remarkably consistent since 2003.

Between 2003 and 2007, an average of 33,495 people wereinvestigated by judicial authorities each year, based on theSPP's work reports. Between 2008 and 2012, the average was33,569, a difference of less than 100.

That hints at the use of targets for graft investigations inChina, a country where anything from issuing parking tickets togross domestic product growth is assigned a target.

"They do a lot of investment earlier on, to make sure thatthey won't need to catch up or rush at the end of the year,"said Wang, referring to how Chinese provinces meet GDP targets.

Few "tigers" have been rounded up under Xi's tenure.

In May, Liu Tienan, the former deputy head of China's topplanning agency, was removed from his post after allegations ofcorruption were posted against him online. A criminalinvestigation was opened in August. [ID: nL4N0G92KI]

Authorities also recently said several former executives atstate energy giant PetroChina and itsparent China National Petroleum Corporation were being probedfor "serious discipline violations", shorthand generally used todescribe graft.

The executives included Jiang Jiemin, the former chairman ofboth entities and who most recently headed the government bodythat oversees state firms. Authorities have given no details ontheir alleged wrongdoing.

Wang said the low prosecution rate overall so far this yearcould indicate authorities wanted to unravel big cases, and thatresults might come next year.

"That would mean it's actually very serious," said Wang."They single out the flies, but they want to find the tigersbehind the flies." (Additional reporting by Li Hui. Editing by Dean Yates)

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