June might not be such a bad month to be a corrupt Chinese official. Sure, there’s a new set of regulations coming into effect baring yet more forms of graft, like payroll fraud or buying property at below-market rates. But the Communist Party’s anti-corruption branch also issued a 30-day window for violators to confess in return for leniency. Party officials have issued clemency decrees before, but they are fairly rare. The usual approach includes harsh punishments and even death sentences, like the one was handed down in the case of former drug regulator Zheng Xiaoyu.
There are downsides to the strike-hard approach. The threat of a death sentence gives a corrupt cadre motivation to become very corrupt. “Because the punishments are so harsh … some corrupted official tend be more vicious and more corrupt,” says Yang Cheng, a professor at the Macau University of Science and Technology. “If you steal 1.5 million yuan ($200,000 U.S.), that qualifies for the death penalty. Why not go for 15 million ($2 million)? If you manage you can escape to the U.S., Canada or Australia.” Developed nations have traditionally been reluctant to extradite corruption suspects to China because of concerns about the unequal application of justice and the use of the death penalty for non-violent crimes. But that is beginning to change. Spain, Portugal and France have signed extradition treaties with China, in part because Beijing agreed to not execute returned fugitives if they were convicted of financial crimes. The U.S. hasn’t signed an extradition treaty, though it has returned an embezzler who was sentenced to 12-year prison term. Now that China is cutting back on its overall use of the death penalty and more closely scrutinizing those executions that go ahead, further cooperation on extraditions seems possible. In exchange China may be losing some of its ability to impose the ultimate justice, but that’s better than none at all.