Modi’s commitment to combating corruption has continued since then. India’s 2023 G20 presidency will feature a series of anti-corruption working group meetings that seek to bolster international cooperation in this area.
Despite his ambitions, Modi’s progress in reducing corruption appears limited. India’s recent performance in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) was disappointing and the Modi administration has faced a spate of criticism over its anti-corruption campaigns.
China, India’s neighbour and another member of the G20, has also struggled to realise its anti-corruption ambitions. Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high profile and unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, which aimed to catch both ‘big tigers’ and ‘small flies’, China’s improvement in the CPI was equally limited, and has been criticised as coming at the expense of fundamental freedoms.
The CPI is a widely used measurement of perceived corruption at the country level. The perceptions of corruption covered in the CPI are primarily those of experts, businesspeople and ordinary citizens, while the perceptions of civil servants and public officials have been largely ignored. But civil servants are both the targets and implementers of anti-corruption initiatives. Tapping into their under-explored ‘insider perspective’ can help to expand the existing understanding of corruption and anti-corruption efforts.
A recent study explored these ‘insider perspectives’ through in-depth, open-ended interviews with 44 government officials from both China and India. The study captured respondents’ perceptions of the effectiveness of existing anti-corruption policies and institutions and highlighted the factors they thought would best facilitate the reduction of corruption.
Findings from this study suggest a great degree of agreement that the government, or more specifically the administrative branch, can and should play a role through a variety of social, educational and digital policy channels. This point can be better appreciated in light of how anti-corruption efforts have long been directed in both countries.
Traditionally, India has relied heavily on the judiciary and the legislature as well as citizen vigilance in fighting corruption. Meanwhile, party supervisory organs — in particular the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection — have assumed a dominant role in China’s anti-corruption policy network. Government proactiveness in constructing transparency-enhancing digital platforms or strengthening bureaucratic morality through training and awareness programmes on public sector integrity are thus variously proposed and practiced in both countries as an effective way to signal commitment to and improve the effectiveness of anti-corruption initiatives.
Beyond their overall agreement on the role of the administrative branch, respondents’ views differed markedly on what corruption is. Officials from both countries stressed that corruption is not purely an economic problem and that its reduction cannot be achieved merely through economic development. But Chinese respondents emphasised the distribution of development benefits as a potential trigger of corruption. For Indian respondents, corruption has more to do with the country’s low level of development and the accessibility of social services, especially for disadvantaged populations.
Such differences may reflect the distinctive development challenges the two countries face, as well as the varied forms of corruption they have. Poverty is a greater concern in India, while in China it is inequality that is more alarming. ‘Access-money’ corruption — in which grand collusion schemes aim to redistribute formerly state-owned assets among the elites — is more prevalent in China, whereas corruption in India most commonly takes the form of ‘speed money’ payments that are made to speed up the bureaucratic process or jump the queue for basic public services.
Regardless of these differences, officials on both sides felt that none of the current mechanisms to reduce corruption were particularly effective on their own. Even widely popular proposals on transparency and technology such as those being pursued under e-government reforms did not receive much praise, with a majority of officials interviewed believing that e-government could work to reduce corruption only under specific conditions. Among other things, better education and infrastructure were highlighted as vital for ensuring the active utilisation of information made accessible via transparency initiatives.
Taken together, these findings point to the urgent need for public servants to devise a smart and coherent policy mix that combines and reinforces existing endeavours. The battle against corruption is likely to be a long and uneasy one for both countries. This should not be taken as discouragement though. Singapore took decades to build what is now recognised as one of the world’s cleanest governments.
With such insights as a starting point, there is significant scope to further explore the complementarities and interrelations of different components of the anti-corruption policy mix. Compared with advanced economies, the ways in which the world’s two largest developing countries are tackling corruption may offer lessons for other developing countries with limited resources and capacity.
Yifei Yan is Lecturer in Public Administration and Public Policy at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom.