Is a Strong Leader Enough to Fight Corruption? Evidence from India and China
A strong leadership as demonstrated by Xi and Modi is the foundation to curb corruption. (Photo: Reuters)
By Lina Vyas and Alfred M. Wu

Is a Strong Leader Enough to Fight Corruption? Evidence from India and China

Sep. 16, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Just within the first 100 days of the Modi 2.0 government, Former Home and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was arrested on August 21, 2019 by the Central Bureau of Investigation due to a media corruption case. This has been the biggest name investigated recently in India. Before the Modi government, it was rare. 


With a greater mandate and bigger parliamentary majorities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has proclaimed its success on anti-corruption through the general election in April and May. In July, Modi articulated the efforts to build a clean government brought by Digital India, which empowers the public. Compared with China’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign, the so-called “tiger hunt”, India has been more impressive on promoting a clean government, based on data from the Corruption Perception Index over the past few years, although both countries are on the same page to fight corruption.


What happened behind the scene? What we could expect from both countries on corruption reduction in the coming years?


Modi recently acquired a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections (lower house of Parliament) winning 303 seats, a higher number than the 2014 elections (282 seats out of 543). One of the leading agendas of the Modi 1.0 government was to strive hard to reduce corruption. President Xi Jinping of China and Modi’s thoughts converge in this issue. In the past five years, the two countries have come up with eye-catching strategies against corruption and their anti-corruption efforts have aroused the interests of both domestic and as well as international observers to either appreciate the success or ridicule the failure in these two largest developing countries.


The central governments of China and India have played a featured role with Xi’s strict anti-corruption policy and Modi’s demonetization drive. Though it is often highlighted that Xi and Modi have their personal interests in strengthening their powers and popularity, the two leaders are nonetheless determined to free the countries they lead of rampant corruption that had their nations suffering for decades.


Both India and China have used different anti-corruption policies in curbing corruption, with wide-ranging strengths and weaknesses. The results can be seen in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2018 where China is ranked 87th out of 175 and India 78th. However, China’s CPI has declined by one point from 40 in 2013 (when Xi assumed the presidency) to 39 in 2018. Meanwhile, India’s CPI has increased by three points from 38 in 2014 (when Modi came to power as prime minister) to 41 in 2018.


There have been criticisms that Modi’s demonetization policy has failed to curb corruption in India based on the indicator of demonetized money returning to government coffers. Nevertheless, corruption is a complex issue and the measurement of effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts has always been a thorny issue for policy makers and the academia. The CPI ranking clearly indicates some success in India. It demonstrates that minor but still positive developments in addressing the problem of corruption in India are evident. Critics might claim that owing to the recent Lok Sabha elections, big projects that might breed corruption were not undertaken, or the party loyalists did not want to create any corruption scandals to hamper their party image in the eyes of the public. One might also speculate that the demonetization policy might have slowed down the formation of black money. India would have performed economically better if the politicization in India’s anti-corruption policies were controlled.

A single leader in big countries like India and China can only execute at a centralized level. The support and commitment of the regional leaders in the same direction would make the change more effective.

The Indian anti-corruption move aims at improving openness and transparency in government. Thus, the government had worked upon and no doubt improved the processes and made it more transparent in the past five years. More importantly, the connectivity between the government and citizens has enhanced the direct contact which filters the loopholes that breed corruption. The government has introduced e-governance in most sectors for greater transparency but the lack of proper infrastructure for the rural population is one of the noticeable barriers. The check and balance strategy of the government which permits the authorities to monitor money transactions in terms of bank deposits and withdrawals has demonstrated positive outcomes as well.


With regards to China, a lack of fundamental institutional reforms is one of the biggest barriers. All the processes are more politicized rather than being institutionalized. The people might have been excited in the beginning but later are doubting the purpose of anti-corruption, its legitimacy, impartiality and effectiveness. One of the reasons why China’s CPI has declined by one point might be because of awareness among people and their ability to recognize corruption cases. It suggests that the complexity of corruption reduction and the measurement of the clean government. Nevertheless, China’s approach of “hunt and catch” corrupt officials are often viewed to be targeting the opponents while shielding the supporters of the government. This approach might not be sustainable nor has far reaching outcomes. Singapore’s example of combating and controlling corruption has been via educating the public and making them aware of their rights and responsibilities as a citizen to harvest a clean system. China could learn from Singapore’s experience to bring greater awareness among the masses. In addition, the Right to Information Act in India and “I Paid a Bribe” anti-corruption movement have fundamentally shaped the landscape of anti-corruption in India; therefore, China could learn from this experience.


Moreover, in India, corruption problems are identified and discussed within the society, while the social and political problems are hidden deeper in China as the propaganda department of the Chinese government would not encourage people to discuss the dark side of the government. During the period of the large-scale anti-corruption campaign, which began with Xi’s presidency in 2013, over 1.5 million members of the Communist Party were punished for violations of various disciplines, mostly related to corrupt activities. Despite the significant success, corruption is still extremely difficult to tackle, and the Chinese government has a long journey ahead to fight corruption. Formalism and bureaucracy are some of the obstacles that need to be solved too. In China, the priority in reducing corruption would be to strengthen political commitment, enhancing transparency and more broadly reducing income inequality in society.


A strong leadership as demonstrated by Xi and Modi is the foundation to curb corruption. However, a single leader in big countries like India and China can only execute at a centralized level. The support and commitment of the regional leaders in the same direction would make the change more effective. According to our field research, the support of anti-corruption among grassroots leaders in the public sector is very low in both countries. A huge gap between different layers of the government is evident in terms of the determination of leadership to fight corruption in both contexts.


In short, though Xi and Modi have been striving hard, there is still a long way to go to clean up the two systems. The anti-corruption effort by India’s leaders, particularly Modi, provides new clues for promoting a clean government in the developing world, although China’s “tiger hunt” has been much more visible in the international media. 



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