A Sydney real estate agent is being questioned by police in China after allegedly fleeing the city with his two sons before his wife was found dead in a freezer.

How did Xi Jinping stop corruption and change China for the better?

Except for the ten years following Reform and Opening, which led to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations corruption never interfered with wage growth or civic safety as it does elsewhere. But it offended the Chinese people, whose Confucian civilization is very different from our ever-corrupt Roman culture.

Corruption–whether nepotistic, pecuniary, blatant, discreet, major, or minor–has undermined governments since governments were invented. Roman politicians were murderously corrupt and Christianity failed to improve them. Confucian governments at least fought corruption, as the The Hongwu Emperor⁠ [1] explained seven hundred years ago,

Had I thoroughly eradicated corrupt officials in addition to those already imprisoned I would have been dealing with two thousand men from just two prefectures, men with no useful occupation who used my prestige to oppress people. No-one outside government knew how wicked they were so everyone said my punishments were harsh; they saw only the severity of the law and didn’t know that these villains had used the government’s good name to engage in evil practices.

In the morning I punished a few and, by evening, others had committed the same crimes. I punished those in the evening and next morning there were more violations! Although the corpses of the first had not been removed others were already lined up to follow in their path, day and night! The harsher the punishment, the more violations. I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t rest. If I was lenient the law became ineffectual, order deteriorated, some people deemed me weak and engaged in still more evil practices. If I punished them others regarded me as a tyrant. How could anyone lead a peaceful life in such circumstances? Really, it was a dreadful situation.

Nevertheless, the Confucian approach to corruption was consistently more effective than the Roman, for the Chinese public knew the antidote: before they destroy the State, people must withdraw the Mandate of Heaven from a government lacking the Four Principles–propriety, justice, honesty, and honor–and from officials lacking the Eight Virtues–loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, love, integrity, righteousness, harmony and peace.

Rulers went to great pains to promote the most virtuous officials and to eliminate nepotism. Emperor Wu of Han began doing so in the second century BC and, despite officials’ resistance, fourteen centuries later, of two-hundred seventy-nine senior officials whose family histories we know[⁠2], fewer than half had forebears in government. By 2018, the number was under one-fifth. As Frederick Mote[⁠3] says, “China is very unusual, probably unique, in having had two millennia of experience with an increasingly open social structure and social ethos.”

This table, from Nancy Park’s Corruption in Eighteenth-Century China, shows how government dealt with corrupt officials (‘salaried persons’) back then:

From the earliest days, officials sent to govern provinces were forbidden to take their parents with them lest their needs conflict with the Emperor’s wishes. They were rotated every three years and, after each rotation, their successors were encouraged to report discrepancies lest they be blamed for them. Palace officials were regularly moved between departments and those who committed serious crimes were executed and their families sold into slavery.

Everyone, from the humblest peasant to the most eminent politician, knows this history and understands that the surest cure for corruption is promoting honest men to leadership. Many still living saw how a century of chaos devastated public morality and how its effects lingered. As Mao observed during an anti-corruption drive in 1950, “Today, you can buy a branch secretary for a few packs of cigarettes, not to mention marrying a daughter to him.”

Mao’s slogan, “The masses have sharp eyes,” encouraged people to report wrongdoing and corruption fell dramatically, just as Confucius had predicted. Though Mao’s insistence on merely shaming corrupt officials rather than executing them infuriated colleagues it worked, says Sydney Rittenberg⁠[4], “Nobody locked their doors. The banks–there was a local bank branch on many, many corners–the door was wide open, the currency was stacked up on the table in plain sight of the door, there were no guards and they never had a bank robbery, ever.”

Anticipating that a wave of corruption would accompany the introduction of capitalism, planners redesigned the economy so that entrepreneurs would effectively bribe officials to expedite national development. Says Yukon Huang[5],

The system countered the growth‐inhibiting aspects of corruption by setting investment and production targets that gave local officials incentives to promote expansion. It fostered a unity of purpose so that, even when corruption flourished, the collaborators still made growth the guiding principle of their actions. This was reinforced by competition between localities to meet targets and support productivity‐enhancing economic reforms. The competitive element helped curb waste and ensured a modicum of efficiency despite the high degree of state intervention in commercial activities.

President Hu Jintao gave the system free rein between 2002-2012 and the roaring economy solved many problems–except corruption. But the government’s alternation of liberal and conservative policies is as ancient and predictable as the moon–and the new cycle followed a nepotism scandal in 2010.

Bo Xilai, son of a Revolutionary Immortal (and schoolmate of Xi Jinping), had ignored his father’s pleas to stay out of politics, “You know nothing of the sufferings of ordinary people and just want to capitalize on my name.” Xilai cultivated a charismatic image, was named one of Time’s Most Influential People, rose rapidly to provincial governor and publicly campaigned for a cabinet position. But, as conservative scholar Cheng Li said at the time, “Nobody really trusts him. A lot of people are scared of him, including several princelings who are supposed to be his power base.” With the help of the Minister for Justice, Zhou Yongkang, Bo even wiretapped the President. Michael Wines wrote that, though he possessed prodigious charisma and deep intelligence, he had “A studied indifference to the wrecked lives that littered his path to power…Mr. Bo’s ruthlessness stood out.”

Then Vice Premier Wu Yi, the nation’s highest woman official, demanded an open investigation in 2012. A court trial revealed that Bo owned expensive property around the world and his wife had murdered a British agent, and the couple was jailed for life. They joined a long line of disgraced elites, like the grandson of Zhu De, China’s Head of State and founder of the Red Army, who was executed for rape, and Yan Jianhong, wife of Guizhou’s powerful Party Secretary, who was executed for corruption.

With the economy strong, prosperity assured, and corruption foremost in the public’s mind, Congress anointed Xi Jinping, the most honest official of his generation, to succeed President Hu.

In his first year, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign saw ten thousand officials passed over for promotion for concealing information and one-hundred thirty-thousand demoted or disciplined for making false declarations. In 2016, corrupt Yunnan Party Secretary, Bai Enpei, was sentenced to death, prosecutors charged sixty-three senior officials and ministers with corruption, and released confessions from fifty-seven thousand Party members who made restitution and accepted demotions.

By 2018, the anti-corruption team had investigated 1.3 million administrators, filed a million court cases, issued one hundred thousand indictments, captured thousands of overseas fugitives and jailed or executed one-hundred twenty high-ranking officials–including five national leaders, twelve generals and a dozen CEOs. After a 2019 Tianjin industrial explosion killed one-hundred sixty-five people the investigating magistrate found that petty bribery had led to weak code enforcement, so he sentenced the responsible official to death and jailed forty-nine colleagues.

Today, anti-graft officials subject officials to unannounced inspections like Olympic athletes’ doping tests. An Anhui provincial inspection team called one official four times between 7:31 and 7:35 one evening about his poverty alleviation efforts and reported that his failure to answer the call–he was showering at the time–had hindered the battle against poverty. Fortunately, when they moved to fire him, the public came to his defense and he was eventually exonerated.

Knowing that that ten percent of their statements will be audited, even deputy county officials now report their marital status, overseas travel, criminal record, wages, other earnings, family properties, stocks, funds, insurance and investments. If they are questioned and refuse to answer, or collude with or protect accomplices, they are detained immediately. Bureaucrats–especially those with leadership ambitions–must endure increasing scrutiny as they advance. As one of them, Zhao Bing Bing[⁠6] said, “The selection criteria are: a person must have ‘both ability and moral integrity and the latter should be prioritized.’”

Midlevel officials must report their own assets and those of their parents, wives, children, children’s spouses and cousins and the reporting form has a reminder, in red ink, to include children from previous marriages, children born out of wedlock and foster children. They must report their income, savings, real estate, stock portfolio, insurance policies, stocks, unit trusts, bonds and assets in overseas accounts, “Income shall include salary and various bonuses, allowances, subsidies, and payment you receive from lectures, writing, consultation, reviewing, painting and calligraphy.” The impact was immediate and palpable, says the young scion of a prominent Party family:

I am a Party Member in China and all my family are Party members. What I think of Xi is that the life is really changing after he came to power. A relative of mine works for the government as a vital governor in my city ShenZhen (which is a big city like BeiJing or ShangHai), then all my family people are like in the hierarchy of privilege. We pay nothing when go out for dinner, the Party pays. We pay nothing for filling in oil, the Party pays. It seems like we don’t need to pay for anything with our salaries, cause either the Party pays, or someone will pay for us (who wants to flatter us). I smoke the best, I drink the best, sometimes I even drive without license when drunk, because I fear no one.

In past times, yes we did have privilege everywhere, I felt so arrogant to be superior to others that’s also true. But the problem is, there is a tradeoff. We drank quite a lot of alcohol to show respect to others, we had to accept bribes even we know it’s risky, cause we have to consider about our clan (like the interest of my boss). We had to do some many things we don’t want to do, that’s the rule of living in Party, care about the interest of Clan more than your own. That’s how we united. We have to fear a lot of threats from ordinary people, colleagues, and bosses. We cannot keep our own passports, Party keeps it in case of we flee.

But life changed after Xi came to power, he did real thing on anti-corruption. No one dare to present gifts to governors and the abuse of public funds is strictly monitored. The Party took back the public cars from my family and even we have to pay for the parking fee now! But..my family and I are actually happy with this, we are thankful to President Xi. Cause he seems like dragging China to a healthier future. My relative doesn’t need to go out for dinner with other governors as social intercourse daily, they don’t need to drink so much on the table. And they start to learn to pay for the bill by turns, cause the Party will no longer do this for them. They start to learn how to take bus or metro. That’s good, actually. People start to think about what kind of lifestyle is called ‘healthy,’ they are more like human now, no longer some conceited stupid with expanding power. That’s how life changed after Xi came.

Officials who have relatives in government must disclose their relationship and wait for promotion until the senior relative retires. Senior ministers’ lives are excruciatingly transparent. Their private activities are scrutinized and their children must adopt assumed names to avoid influence-seekers. One-on-one appointments are taken as evidence of impropriety so all meetings must have third-party observers. A trail of excessive–or poor quality–government debts is treated as prima facie evidence of corruption and automatically investigated.

Even retirement brings no release: after retirement senior officials are audited annually and remain responsible for the consequences of their decisions until the day they die. Even then, clawback provisions reclaim ill-gotten gains.

The masses’ eyes grew sharper, too, after Xi crowdsourced the anti-corruption campaign. He urged everyone to text 12388, the office of the Rules and Discipline Committee (founded during the Tang Dynasty). Complainants often post accusations on social media and request additional witnesses. In one famous case, netizens scrutinizing a news photograph spotted a low-level safety official wearing an expensive watch and the subsequent investigation sent Brother Watch to jail for fourteen years. Amateur corruption fighters even have their own websites and Beijing publishes monthly scores:

Visitors still burn incense at the shrines of great corruption fighters and millions watch TV dramas about ‘Justice Bao’ Zheng, the incorruptible Prefect of the Capital in 1000 AD. A wildly popular TV series, ‘In the Name of People,’ depicts current-day intra-Party power struggles in the fictional city of Jingzhou. The Jingzhou prosecutor and honest local officials help laid-off workers violently protesting a corrupt land deal, fight corrupt bureaucrats sabotaging an arrest warrant, and stop fake police bulldozing honest citizens’ homes. The writers say they have no shortage of material for the show.

But for all his high-profile attacks on corruption, Xi’s most memorable contribution to Chinese history will probably be his new, fourth arm of government, the National Supervision Commission[⁠7], whose job it is to make corruption impossible. It is only such government agency on earth.

Before the Commission was created, anti-corruption was divided between the Party and the state. On the Party side, the CCDI enforced party discipline–including party loyalty, anti-graft, and ethical and lifestyle requirements–against Party members, who constitute 80 percent of civil servants and 95 percent of leading officials. The CCDI turned evidence of criminal wrongdoing over to the state for prosecution.

On the state side, the State Council Ministry of Supervision (MOS) supervised the civil servants who were not Party members, investigated graft, misappropriation of public funds, and other duty-related violations. The National Bureau of Corruption Prevention made policy recommendations and coordinated international anti-corruption. Departments of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) investigated certain kinds of corruption and malfeasance.

Now the anti-corruption functions of all three agencies–the MOS, the CPB, and the SPP–are performed by the Commission which, as the highest anti-corruption agency in the country, ranks with the Supreme People’s Court and the Department of Justice. Congress appoints its director, deputy director and senior staff–who need not be Party members and who cannot work in another arm of government for the rest of their lives.

Their first task is turning the ongoing anti-corruption campaign into a regular legal process, rather than continuing prosecution through internal and extralegal channels. The Commission also oversees provincial, city, and county commissions responsible for supervising all public personnel exercising public power. Their authority is much broader than their predecessor agencies and they enjoy more powerful investigatory powers including, scarily, power of immediate detention!

The Supervision Law also doubles, even triples, the number of personnel subject to supervision. While the MOS only had jurisdiction over non-Party government employees, the new law gives the Commission authority over civil servants, the CCP itself, the government, the people’s congresses, the supervision commissions themselves, the people’s courts and the procuracy, the people’s political consultative congresses, the eight democratic parties, federations of industry and commerce, and other personnel managed under China’s Civil Servants Law or who work in organizations that manage public affairs.

The Commission’s writ runs further: to SOE managers, state educational, scientific research, cultural, health care, sports, and similar entities and grassroots villager and urban residents committees–and even ‘other personnel who perform public duties.’ They do not have jurisdiction over the PLA or the PAP, who are supervised by the Central Military Commission.

The Commission is neither an administrative body like MOS nor a judicial organ like the SPC or SPP–it is a political body. This means that, in addition to being exempted from criminal procedure protections, it is not subject to the administrative law that imposes procedural and substantive constraints on government administrative organs like the police, which must disclose stipulated information, allow the public to participate in rule-making, and follow due process when imposing administrative penalties.

The new Supervision Law does allow its targets to request re-examination of the Commission’s decisions and challenge (internally) unlawful conduct like harsh interrogation and prolonged detention by appealing to the higher-level supervision organ. But, though the new law does not provide a right of further appeal to the courts, it does require supervisory organs and staff to pay lawful compensation for infringing someone’s lawful rights and interests.

The effects of the anti-corruption drive are already visible: civil service applications fell four percent in 2018, but satisfaction with local officials rose twenty percent since 2012, while ninety-three percent of people said they trust the national government and eighty-three percent say it runs the country for everyone’s benefit. Thanks to officials’ early years in the wilderness, constant monitoring, endless ethics lectures, relentless demands for results, exhaustive disclosures, painful transparency and twenty-four-hour public scrutiny, corruption is becoming a losing business.

We should also credit Confucius for limiting political power to a single lifetime, for knowing that intelligence and honesty are linked[⁠8], and for insisting that power be given only to honest, intelligent people.


1 Huáng-Míng Zǔxùn (Instructions of the Ancestor of the August Ming) were admonitions left by the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Chinese Ming dynasty, to his descendants.

2 China’s Meritocratic Examinations and the Ideal of Virtuous Talents. Xiao, H., & Li, C. (2013). In D. Bell & C. Li (Eds.), The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective: Cambridge University Press.

3 Imperial China 900-1800. F.W. Mote

4 An old friend of the party assesses China’s new leaders. Rob Schmitz. Marketplace.November 19, 2012

5 Yukon Huang was the World Bank’s Director for China. The Diplomat

6 The China Model, by Daniel Bell and Zhao Bing Bing.

7 The National Supervision Commission was formed at the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress in 2018 and absorbed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China.

8 Honesty, rule violation and cognitive ability: A reply to Gächter and Schulz, by Heiner Rindermann, David Becker, and James Thompson.