HONG KONG — Corruption, from the bottom of society to the very top, is arguably the biggest problem facing Chinese society today.
But can training students in the art of anti-corruption crime fighting make a difference?
That’s the hope of a one-of-a-kind program at prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, which this June graduated its first class of 24 master’s degree students.
The program has generated intense interest across the country, particularly on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, where righteous graft-denouncers flourish.
He Jiahong — a writer, law professor and outspoken critic of corruption — started the program in 2010 while writing his fourth novel. The book, Innocent But Corrupt Officials, features a virtual Utopia created out of a city rotten with corruption. Likewise, he has described his mission in building the program as “creating a utopia in China’s educational system, at least.”
The master's program selected 24 law students, and taught them skills ranging from fingerprint analysis and lie detection to high-tech techniques such as recovering digital evidence hidden in electronic equipment.
The prestige of the students’ field instructors has drawn great attention. All eight are high-ranking officials from the country’s top corruption watchdogs. One is the chief of China’s National Bureau of Corruption Prevention.
The classes taught by these officials are kept under strict secrecy.
“No one except the 24 students are allowed to attend class, and when asked by others about the class content, we should refuse to tell,” Li Chuanwen, a graduate, told the Beijing News.
Graduates have said that on the first day of class, He Jiahong told them they had to follow three rules that generally break with the practices of contemporary Chinese students: do not give gifts to teachers; do not treat teachers to dinners; and always behave in an honest, upright fashion.
Despite its elite nature, the degree has not delivered instant career success. When it was launched in 2010, students say they were all guaranteed jobs at local or national anti-corruption institutions after graduation. That promise fell by the wayside when 2013 proved to be one of the toughest job markets for college graduates. Now, the students must take exams like all other applicants in order to qualify for jobs.
Apart from job concerns, the anti-corruption program has drawn criticism for being, in effect, a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem. Wang Guixiu, a retired professor from the Party School of Central Committee, has said that the curriculum does nothing to “address the superficial and trivial aspects of the problem, not even close to knocking the core of corruption.”
Others have wondered, perhaps cynically, whether any members of the class will end up becoming corrupt officials themselves. On Weibo one blogger wrote: “Can they crack down on themselves? With all the training they received, it is highly possible that they will become more clever and more skilled corrupt officials in the future.”
He Jiahong admitted in an interview with the Southern Metropolis newspaper that he would not be too surprised if this happened. “I still hope that some of them will be the heart of China’s fight against corruption in the future. But the bigger picture is something beyond my control. I should say, it will take at least 20 years for a high-ranking corrupt official to appear among them.”
For He, the fact that this educational experiment has attracted so much attention in China reflects widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and hope that corruption can be uprooted.
“I should say,” he continued “that this program, though not a substantial step on the uphill road to combating corruption, will make some difference five to 10 years after those trained young people begin to work in those anti-corruption positions.”