Some critics dismiss Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive anti-graft campaign as a political witch-hunt directed at his enemies. Others have a different complaint: They argue that bribes and favours have historically served as the grease in the wheels of China’s growth. By disrupting the traditional flow of business, they contend, Xi’s graft enforcers have brought the country’s economic engine grinding to a halt.

The good news is that those critics are wrong, as a careful look at data makes clear. The bad news is that the government’s own efforts to revive growth risk replenishing corruption at its source.

The case for graft, as it were, is superficially plausible. Like a light-fingered version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, thieving officials have an incentive to spur economic activity. The real estate and infrastructure projects that line their pockets also contribute to a blistering pace of investment. Now, investigators have frightened cadres into cancelling investment projects.

The numbers, however, tell a different story. Drawing on data from ChinaFile, provincial prosecutors and the National Bureau of Statistics, Bloomberg Intelligence Economics has assembled a unique data set on corruption and growth over the past decade. Even given the occasionally patchy nature of the data, it’s clear that the corruption crackdown isn’t to blame for the slowdown.

Investigators have targeted a whole range of provinces for scrutiny. Yet, growth has slowed in some, such as coal-mining Shanxi, and not others like export-hub Guangdong.

The national data points in the same direction: The biggest slowdown in growth came before Xi’s campaign started at the end of 2012, not after.

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. In Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, graft is rightly seen as adding to the cost and uncertainty of doing business, inequality and social stress, thus presenting a barrier to development. It’s hardly likely that China would have discovered a unique form of pro-growth corruption.

The problem is what the data also confirms about the roots of corruption. Provinces where the state accounts for a large share of industry and employment, and where growth is reliant on debt-fuelled investment, not surprisingly tend to suffer higher levels of graft.

Even as Xi’s graft-busters continue to target both “tigers" and “flies"—high-level officials and their lowly counterparts—other government policies are channelling more resources into the state sector.

Plans for wider reform of state-owned enterprises remain on the drawing board, and there’s no intention to expose behemoths in energy, finance and other strategic sectors to market forces. Investment by state-owned companies is up more than 23% year-on-year in the first five months of 2016. By contrast, spending by the private sector has slowed dramatically, growing less than 4%.

The government’s strategy might make sense as a stopgap solution, a classic Keynesian stimulus as state spending fills the gap left by retreating private firms. But, as the state’s role in the economy grows, so too will opportunities for graft.

Clean governance requires addressing the conditions that encourage corruption, not just the symptoms. Some worthy initiatives are already underway. By pushing local governments to replace trillions of yuan in shadowy debt with lower-interest bonds, the ministry of finance is making their borrowing more transparent. Efforts to cut red tape are also removing opportunities for venal officials to extract corrupt rents.

Shrinking the government’s direct role in the economy is a tall order. But difficulties haven’t deterred Xi from cracking down on some of the most politically influential figures in China. They shouldn’t stop him from overhauling the state sector either. Bloomberg

Tom Orlik is the chief Asia economist for Bloomberg Intelligence.

Comments are welcome atotherviews@livemint.com.

Close
×
My Reads Logout