On Second Thought, Let’s Not Execute Corrupt Officials

China’s experiment with periodic party purging is a real nightmare.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday, June 14, 2013. Desalegn is in China for a four-day visit.

Would executing corrupt public officials be the most effective way to reduce dishonesty in public life? In the darkest recesses of our minds, we may harbor the idea that executing crooked public servants would foster a more virtuous government. But we've never taken this approach in America – take former Congressman Duke Cunningham, who served just seven years in prison for taking $2.5 million in bribes.

For an example of a nation that routinely kills its civil servants, though, look no further than the People's Republic of China. The Chinese government executes people for all sorts of crimes, including economic ones. Although exact numbers are unknown, Amnesty International notes that China "continued to account for the majority of the world's executions," perhaps 3,000 annually. This is a country that in 2009 claimed a 99.9 percent conviction rate for criminal trials.

There's a Chinese saying that you should "kill the chicken to scare the monkey." The Chinese Communist Party General Secretary (and Chinese President) Xi Jinping has taken this aphorism to heart, pursuing a tough anti-corruption campaign. The first head placed on the chopping block belonged to the former railway minister, who was convicted of "bribery and abuse of power." The court sentenced him to death, but suspended the sentence.

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But other corrupt Chinese officials have not been the beneficiaries of state mercy. In 2011, the vice mayors of the picturesque cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou were found guilty of accepting almost $50 million in bribes and paid the ultimate price for their crimes. Likewise, in 2010, the director of the Chongqing Justice Bureau was executed for accepting bribes and supporting organized crime. The same fate befell China's State Food and Drug Administration chief in 2007.

China-watchers are waiting to see what will happen to former party strongman Bo Xilai. Bo was slated to become one of the seven top officials in China until a litany of shocking charges, ranging from massive corruption to murder, ended his political career in 2012. Only time will tell if he will meet a similar fate to other corrupt Chinese officials.

But have these executions led to a more effective, cleaner, transparent Chinese government? The data suggests otherwise: Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perception Index still ranks China as having the 80th least corrupt public sector, falling below Liberia and Brazil but above El Salvador and Peru. (America is ranked 19th.)

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The drivers triggering much of the instability in China – most prominently land grievances and environmental problems – are caused, in part, by bureaucrats on the take. And many officials are not shy about flaunting their standing:  the coveted status symbol for public officials is a black $61,500 Audi A6 with tinted windows, which is pretty difficult to obtain on a civil servant's salary.

The perception that public officials are immensely corrupt has become deeply embedded in Chinese society. In China, it is shocking when U.S. officials make routine purchases for themselves – for instance, when the U.S. ambassador to China bought himself coffee at Starbucks, or when the U.S. treasury secretary purchased a cheap lunch after meeting Xi, it became news in China. The expectation in China is: why pay for lunch or coffee when you can get the taxpayer to do it for you?

Xi and other top party cadres know that corruption (and the perception of corruption) threatens their grip on power, so they probably surmise that executing a few dishonest officials will sate the public's free-form rage against the system. But it's the party's hold on authority that ultimately matters. As Xi recently noted, "Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns [the party's] survival or extinction."

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Lethal justice may only serve to distract the public in the short-term. To satisfy a growing urban Chinese middle-class, the party will have to recognize that its system of governance is the ultimate corruptor. A government characterized by arbitrary rules, stifling censorship, a lack of checks and balances and the use of violence to stifle dissent erodes public confidence. Symbolically executing a few dishonest officials will not address the underlying corruption that impedes a modern, prosperous China.

There will always be crooked public officials, but the best way to remove them is the good ol' fashioned American way: throw the bums out via the ballot box. But so long as the party is in firm control of the country, this option will remain far out of reach for the average Chinese citizen. And just like the choking smog that has enveloped Beijing, China will continue to suffocate from corruption on a daily basis.

Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda." 

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