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Book Reviews

FANG, Qiang, and Xiaobing LI (eds). 2019. Corruption and Anticorruption in Modern China. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Carolin Kautz
p. 78-79

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1Since Xi Jinping launched a major anticorruption campaign after coming to power in late 2012, corruption and efforts at combatting it have become a prominent topic in China-related scholarship. A growing number of publications on Xi’s campaign largely fall into two main directions. In the first one, authors analyse the campaign as a power struggle and a means to increase Xi’s personal power. In the other one, scholars see it as a way of dealing with a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is reinventing itself and strengthening its governing capabilities. This edited volume by Fang Qiang and Li Xiaobing contributes to the growing academic debate on corruption in China, while also diverging from these two main directions in the literature.

2This edited volume consists of 15 chapters (including the Introduction and Conclusion) and is organised into four parts. Of these four parts, only the last one, entitled “New century, new struggle,” deals with developments directly related to Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign. The other three parts, “Centralized power and authoritarianism,” “Political parties and legitimacy,” and “Government, individuals, and conflicting interests” contain chapters that are loosely subsumed under these headlines, presenting case studies from a number of different periods of Chinese history. The historical diversity of case studies ranges from the Han and Tang Dynasties (Chapter Ten) and the Qing Dynasty (Chapter One) to the Republican period (Chapters Two, Three, and Four), the Maoist People’s Republic (Chapter Five), and post-Mao China (Chapters Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen). This approach of covering an extensive historical period and discussing corruption throughout Chinese history distinguishes this edited volume from most other publications, which usually concentrate on a specific period. Discussions on corruption in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) quite often only focus on the post-Mao era without considering earlier developments in Maoist China. This is particularly the case for recent publications that have appeared in the wake of Xi’s anticorruption campaign. The editors of this volume argue instead that: “corruption as an illicit or abnormal activity has a long history in China and many rulers from at least the Han Dynasty till the PRC have launched numerous anticorruption campaigns” (p. xii).

3Other ways in which they contribute to current academic debates include the fact that some chapters are based on newly released primary material, for instance Chapter Two, which relies on Yuan Shikai’s diaries to analyse his contributions to anticorruption work in early Republican China. Additionally, the authors claim that their personal cultural and family backgrounds closely connecting them to China place them in a better position to study corruption in China. The editors argue that “such kind of cross-cultural national sentiment can rarely be found among scholars who study China simply as a career or interest” (p. xvii). However, it remains unclear throughout the book how this different perspective distinguishes their work from that of other scholars. Finally, the editors claim that the fourth original contribution of the book is the embedding of Chinese debates on corruption into global developments. They do this – albeit briefly – in the concluding chapter, where they compare corruption in China and the United States. They conclude that while corruption is a global issue, a democratic state under the rule of law is better equipped for dealing with it. Hence, they recommend political and legal reforms for China to deal with corruption more successfully.

4Considering the overall contributions of the volume to current debates on corruption in China, two aspects stand out. The first one is indeed the broad historic approach of analysing corruption in very different periods of Chinese history. Such a comparative approach is important, as it allows for overcoming normative arguments based on assumed cultural incomparability. The second strength of the volume is its very specific case studies that focus, for example, on the role of corruption in the demise of the Guomindang 國民黨 on the Mainland (Chapters Three and Four), early corruption cases in the PRC (Chapter Five), or the way corruption becomes visible in popular rhymes (minyao 民謠) circulated among the Chinese public (Chapter Nine). Such diverse case studies can provide interesting new evidence on corruption and anticorruption during different historical periods.

5However, the volume’s broad historical coverage and the specificity of its case studies constitute at the same time its drawback. Because the focus is extremely broad, the book lacks a larger analytical framework that would link the chapters together and allow them to conceptually interact with each other. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that no common definition of corruption is used. While the editors in the introduction refer to the work of Lü Xiaobo (2000) and argue that “any activity, no matter how trivial it is, could be corruption so long as it breaks the existing norms and laws” (p. xii), Yang Zhiguo (Chapter Five) refers to the definition of corruption as the “use of public office for private advantage” (p. 134). On the contrary, Hou Xiaojia (Chapter Six) identifies a “variety of forms of political corruptions” (p. 156) one of which is “the CCP’s long trend of making arbitrary decisions regardless of local customs” (ibid.). While all these activities can obviously be subsumed as breaking existing norms and laws, this variety of definitions and the fact that they are often not explicitly spelled out poses an analytical challenge. Therefore, the broad historical focus and the rather specific case studies, while interesting on an empirical and descriptive level, prove to be a challenge for analytical coherence and leave the chapters somehow unconnected.

6Thus, this book is a good read for historians and social scientists who are interested in a broad historical lens on corruption in China and in new empirical data from different historical periods. It can provide a starting point for further research on corruption throughout Chinese history. However, in order to engage in meaningful comparisons, such research would also have to think more conceptually about this issue.

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Bibliography

LÜ, Xiaobo. 2000. Cadres and Corruption: The Organizational Involution of the Chinese Communist Party. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Carolin Kautz, « FANG, Qiang, and Xiaobing LI (eds). 2019. Corruption and Anticorruption in Modern China. Lanham: Lexington Books. », China Perspectives, 2021/2 | 2021, 78-79.

Electronic reference

Carolin Kautz, « FANG, Qiang, and Xiaobing LI (eds). 2019. Corruption and Anticorruption in Modern China. Lanham: Lexington Books. », China Perspectives [Online], 2021/2 | 2021, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 25 September 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/11898 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.11898

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About the author

Carolin Kautz

Carolin Kautz (M.A.) is Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Department of East Asian Studies at Goettingen University. Georg-August University Goettingen, Department of East Asian Studies, Heinrich-Dueker-Weg 14, 37073 Goettingen, Germany (carolin.kautz@phil.uni-goettingen.de).

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