The politics of the drive against corruption

In one week at the end of 2015, five presidents or senior vice-presidents of four of Beijing’s most prestigious universities were punished or penalised for violating laws and Communist Party regulations on embezzlement and corruption.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: 52 members of senior management at universities and scholars were reprimanded on similar charges by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, or CCDI, in 2015. Corruption cases in higher education sent shockwaves around the higher education sector and were picked up by the media, which has been tracking the anti-corruption campaign in universities that started in 2013.

Nineteen well known universities affiliated directly to the Ministry of Education and Beijing’s municipal government have held “Clean Party and Government of Integrity” workshops on campuses. The CCDI has urged public universities to conduct their own investigations into “educational and practical activities”.

The topics of workshops and investigations covered areas ranging from bureaucracy to extravagance but also regulations, discipline and retraining of university management and faculty members. The main focus was on financial reporting and the administration of scientific research funds.

In addition, through a series of briefing meetings, universities have looked at the administration of research funding and how to rein in extravagant spending on university activities.

In early December 2015, the Ministry of Education urgently issued a “Notification on Submitting a Progress Report on Work on Clean Party and Government of Integrity,” which requires the Communist Party of China, or CPC, Committee of universities to outline their “basic working procedures, practices and experiences in confronting the anti-corruption drive of 2015” and report the findings of any investigation confidentially to the CCDI group stationed in the Ministry of Education within a stipulated timeframe.

A close look at recent corruption cases concerning university officials reveals the most likely hotbeds of corruption as being areas such as student enrolment, on-campus construction and expansion, research funding and equipment sourcing, all of which involve large sums of money and the opportunity for economic gain.

Irregular campus expansion and poorly managed increases in enrolment over the past two decades have been coupled with weak internal control systems inherited from China’s centrally planned economic system.

Among the high profile cases that have come to light are that of Professor Chen Yingxu, a well-known environmental scholar from Zhejiang University, who was accused of corruption and embezzlement of CNY9.45 million (US$1.44 million) in research funding.

Bureaucracy and corruption

Senior management and officials in universities serve a dual role as public servants and, in most cases, as CPC members, which inevitably means that the hierarchical order and control patterns present in Chinese government administration are translated into the management of public universities. The dual role has been shown to breed executive malpractice and corruption for a long time.

Presidents and senior managers of universities are normally appointed directly by a higher administrative authority and the CPC Organisation Department. Moreover, government officers also supervise the allocation of research funding, university curriculum design, textbook content, official ranking and evaluation and issues relating to teaching staff.

The intertwined relationship between public universities and government drives ambitious scholars to set their sights on becoming “politicians-in-waiting” and this encourages the adoption of bureaucratic and administrative styles into university management.

In this system, privileged senior officials and managers of universities can easily seek private gain or to line their own pockets through manipulation of the power they possess if they are not sufficiently supervised.

Alongside recent exposure of university corruption and the sacking of officials, the focus on university management brings public attention and drives reform. China’s central government has realised the need to tackle related issues by regulating a system in which corruption and bureaucracy are heavily embedded.

In relation to this, both the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development and the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee Congress stipulated the need “to abolish the administrative level of university, to deepen the educational ‘management-operation-evaluation’ reform, and to establish a modern university system”.

Concrete measures such as Interim Measures for the Regulation Formation in Universities, which was implemented by the Ministry of Education in 2012, aim to achieve self-management of universities by formulating regulations and to promote internal democracy and strengthen supervision by setting up internal academic committees. Nevertheless, the actual implementation of such reforms has drawn suspicion.

A senior education minister has also repeatedly emphasised the importance of observing the CPC anti-corruption drive. In his article published in the CPC’s official magazine Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) magazine, Education Minister Yuan Guiren stated that universities serve an irreplaceable role in promoting ideology and should not be contaminated by antagonistic “Western thoughts” and that more guidance should be given to universities to ensure they follow the right political path.

How to bridge the gap between tackling administrative bureaucracy and reinforcing political ideology is a challenge the CPC faces when it seeks to restrict and punish corruption in university management. In fact, the CCDI, the CPC’s investigation and integrity-control body, together with the Ministry of Education, dominates China’s anti-corruption campaign and closely monitors misdemeanours by public university officials.

The main areas for concern are in fields such as campus-related construction, equipment procurement, student admission and enrolment, financial control, scientific research funds' management, college-run enterprises and logistics support and academic integrity. These seven fields, which draw the highest concentration of educational resources, are ones where universities should focus their attention.

Certain self-examination and self-regulation measures were put in place following criticism of four universities since 2014. No doubt stricter regulations will be published after the exposure of the recent corruption cases.

The embezzlement scandal of Professor Li Ning, a member of Chinese Academy of Engineering, or CAE, China's highest engineering research academy, prompted his suspension as a CAE member upon his arrest by authorities.

It is likely that scandals in higher education management and the anti-corruption campaign in late 2015 will curb corruption and lead to further regulations being introduced. Such measures should have a positive impact on China’s higher education reforms in the long run.

Tianlong Lawrence Hu is Mingde Youth Scholar Associate Professor at Renmin University of China Law School, China, and visiting professor of law at Fredric G Levin College of Law, University of Florida, USA. Email: Ge Fan and Xi Xie also contributed to this article.


Education set to be a major area of CCDI investigations. Word is that "international colleges" (actually for-profit subsidiary training companies) run by public universities already expressly forbidden by MoE are refusing new enrolments.

Mike Gow on the University World News Facebook page