America's best defense against China's mushrooming international corruption is dangling by a thread

·6 min read
china computer chip
Computer chip with Chinese flag, 3d conceptual illustration. Steven McDowell/Science Photo Library
  • China has elevated the art of state-backed corruption to a new and dangerous level.

  • How Congress responds will define whether the US spends the next quarter century leading on anticorruption, or reacting to an increasingly destabilizing series of Chinese kleptocracy.

  • A bipartisan bill to counteract China's strategic use of corruption was just passed and should be included in any final China-focused bill that Congress approves

  • Scott Greytak is the Director of Advocacy for the US office of Transparency International.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the world in an acutely nationalistic address from Tiananmen Square. Xi boasted of China's "new model for human advancement" and the Chinese Communist Party's intent to "build a new type of international relations." Any foreign force that would attempt to bully the Chinese people, the president said, would "have their heads bashed bloody."

The world's diplomats are increasingly learning to take China at its word. Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi recently warned of the growing collaboration between the Chinese and Russian governments. That renewed friendship could mean a fresh surge in state-backed corruption that threatens American national security and weakens our competitiveness abroad.

Congress is fighting back with its own toolkit designed to counter the growing influence of Chinese and Russian corruption campaigns. The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently passed the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act (CROOK Act), mile-marking legislation on the US's new path to fighting global corruption that would establish for the first time a dedicated "Anti-Corruption Action Fund." That fund can be used to support anti-corruption efforts abroad, including efforts to counteract China's strategic use of corruption to grow its economic and political influence in key parts of the world.

The CROOK Act arrives just as Congress begins its negotiations over a broader China-focused bill, a key piece of foreign policy legislation that the Biden administration is eager to pass with bipartisan support. Those discussions present a timely and consequential opportunity to kickstart a wide-ranging approach to fighting Chinese corruption campaigns abroad. The quickest way to strengthen America's defenses is to ensure CROOK is included in the final China-focused package.

Crooked agenda

While the CROOK Act has broad applications for combating the rising tide of kleptocracy - which translates to "rule by thieves" - and other examples of state-sponsored corruption around the world, China has elevated the art of state-backed grifting to a new and dangerous level. The Chinese Community Party is now notorious for using bribery and other forms of corruption to expand China's economic and political influence across the world, undermining the rule of law and democratic systems along the way.

At Transparency International, we've seen China's trail of corruption snake into nearly every part of the world, from Africa to Southeast Asia to Mexico. In many cases, the social and economic chaos that follows further destabilizes regions, and resets the clock on good government.

The presidents of Chad and Uganda, for example, were offered bribes of $2 million and $500,000, respectively, by the chief executive of a Chinese energy conglomerate closely aligned with the Chinese government in exchange for opening the countries' oil and gas markets to Chinese businesses. Through such wide-ranging corruption schemes that exploit developing nations, China is able to "weaponiz[e] corruption to advance its national interests."

In both Chad and Uganda, prominent local advocates and politicians, including Chadian opposition party leader Succès Masra and Ugandan presidential candidate Bobi Wine, have called on the US to help promote civic rights and accountability in government. In those countries, targeted new support for strengthening anti-corruption legal and institutional frameworks, and for effectively pursuing cases of grand corruption, respectively, could help ensure more robust civic spaces and more competitive business climates.

Nowhere is China's corruption on such open display as in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an international corruption scheme cloaked in the language of economic development and interconnectedness. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes that for China, the opportunities for state-sponsored corruption aren't a bug in the BRI's programming - they're a key feature.

"Chinese-driven corruption now permeates high-profile BRI projects," writes Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Advisor Elaine Dezenski. "Chinese influence is still near its high-water mark," she observes, and "BRI recipients may be even more dependent on Beijing as they grapple with post-pandemic economic recovery."

Each and every corrupt and destabilizing deal inked by the Chinese government has ripple effects for American economic vitality and national security. Without new tools for countering China's exporting of corruption, the United States will eventually feel the economic and governance hangover of Chinese corruption. That's where CROOK comes into play.

CROOK would help counter foreign corrupting influence across the globe by deploying rapid-response resources to anti-corruption voices in foreign governments, civil society groups, and media organizations when integrity is under threat. CROOK's dedicated anti-corruption funds will build a backstop for clean and ethical governance, and help anti-corruption champions fight back against authoritarian influence.

The flexibility of CROOK funds is what gives the law an outsized impact. US foreign aid is often planned years in advance, has already been spoken for, or is beset by bureaucracy and red tape. CROOK takes a different path by allowing the US government to disperse anti-corruption funds in a variety of ways depending on the situation on the ground. This flexibility is key for meeting moments of opportunity, crisis, or transition.

For example, with a longer runway, grantees could apply for and receive CROOK funds through a competitive review process. With a shorter response window, recipients could be chosen from a pool of pre-cleared grantees. And when time is truly of the essence, US ambassadors could disperse CROOK funds at their discretion, akin to how the US Agency for International Development provides disaster relief.

The CROOK Act presents an opportunity for Congress to make substantive improvements to America's economic security, while also proving that our lawmakers can still come together to address critical issues of international importance. Without CROOK's improved protections, American companies doing business abroad will eventually fall into China's influence trap. At that point, preventative policy measures will be too little, too late.

How Congress responds to China's increasingly blatant international corruption will define whether the United States spends the next quarter century leading on anti corruption or reacting to an increasingly destabilizing series of Chinese adventures in open-air kleptocracy. The full House of Representatives and Senate must now act with a shared sense of purpose and urgency to ensure that the CROOK Act is included in their final China-focused policy package.

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