Euroviews. Kleptocrats in democracy’s clothing: Beijing and Moscow talk anti-corruption at the UN

Representatives from hundreds of countries assembled last month at a UN conference in Atlanta, Georgia, to talk about global efforts to combat corruption. 

While the event of more than 3,000 attendees hardly made the local news, it proved to be a brilliant opportunity for authoritarian regimes to muddle an issue that negatively affects the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

Disingenuous objections by Azerbaijan were meant to limit the participation of anti-corruption activists, while representatives from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia spoke about the importance of transparency and even denying safe havens for illicit financial flows.

There were entertaining moments — a Russian panel on anti-corruption devoted its entire hour to discussing the difficulty of choosing a winner of its 1990s-style youth contest for the best anti-corruption poster or video. 

China handed out “little red boxes” to the other panellists after a particularly bland discussion of how academics can assist anti-corruption efforts — a panel where the Russian moderator appeared to make an overt request for greater China “funding”. 

It all adds up to a worrying and much larger trend on full display — the democratisation of kleptocracy.

Beijing pats itself on the back

The highlight for authoritarian double-talk, however, was unquestionably China and its self-congratulatory presentation on integrity within its notoriously corrupt Belt and Road Initiative. 

It was a sixty-minute tour de force, touting the various “high-level principles” and the “firm stances” on integrity building without ever providing a single concrete action to practically address — or even admit to — the massive corruption scandals caused by China’s opaque disbursal of a trillion dollars in BRI spending.

Instead of action, the China panel pushed weak and non-credible platitudes: “Every construction project will be completed with integrity. Each penny of public funds will be well spent. Every corrupt person will be brought to justice.” 

Apparently, the Chinese Communist Party is now available to help the world unwind China’s bad behaviour over the last decade of the BRI.

Security officials walk with dogs in Tiananmen Square during the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, October 2023

Apparently, the Chinese Communist Party is now available to help the world unwind China’s bad behaviour over the last decade of the BRI.

Beijing gave no support for its claims, though they did note that “an opinion poll shows that 97.4% of the Chinese people are satisfied with the progress in the fight against corruption.” 

To bolster the claims of integrity in global BRI projects, public officials from Cambodia, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia shared the stage with the Chief Inspector from China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), who offered that the state-owned company “show[s] zero tolerance to acts such as corruption, fraud, and colluding,” despite widespread allegations of corruption against CSCEC in BRI projects in Zambia, Guyana, Georgia, the Philippines, Pakistan, or Hungary.

The World Bank’s debarment of CSCEC in 2019 seems to stand alone as an appropriate and effective multi-lateral act of courage.

‘A more equitable and prosperous world for all’?

The nonsense narrative deepened with the BRI Integrity panel keynote address of Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN agency that oversees and safeguards the implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. 

More than 180 countries have signed the convention, including China’s adoption of it in 2006. 

Waly, the UN’s top anti-corruption official, shared the stage with Chinese officials to announce that “the Belt and Road Initiative charts a road towards a more equitable and prosperous world for all.” 

While it is understandable that UN discussions reflect a level of diplomacy and respect, surely it is not impossible to speak the truth, or at least refrain from appearing oblivious to reality.

A motorcyclist drives past sheep on a newly built road in Haripur, Pakistan, December 2017

Given the astounding levels of corruption reported in BRI countries, Waly missed the opportunity to call out the BRI for what it has come to represent — a decade of questionable deals, large-scale corruption, vanity projects, opaque terms and conditions, and failing infrastructure, including in her home country of Egypt. 

While it is understandable that UN discussions reflect a level of diplomacy and respect, surely it is not impossible to speak the truth, or at least refrain from appearing oblivious to reality.

China’s integrity double-talk is, of course, part of a broader push to extend political and economic influence by bending the UN and other international bureaucracies toward more empty platitudes that allow China (and others) to continue its export their own set of deal terms, rules, norms, and standards around the world.

In dire need of an honest conversation

Adopting the popular and valuable language of Western liberal democracies by redefining terms like anti-corruption, human rights, democracy, and integrity — even when self-evidently disingenuous — provides China the cover to mimic the mechanisms of good governance while blunting efforts to hold authoritarian regimes accountable.

A BRI document titled “Achievements and Prospects of Belt and Road Integrity Building,” argues that “integrity is the moral ‘bottom line’ and the legal ‘red line’ for Belt and Road cooperation.” 

Later in the same document, we see why China’s notion of integrity lacks meaning: “We need to … respect the right to choose one’s own way of fighting corruption.”

In other words, no country can judge another country’s methods for fighting corruption, even if those methods achieve nothing at all.

To be clear, bashing a UN agency will not undo the ongoing whitewash of the global anti-corruption agenda. It is past time for governments to call out the double-speak. 

For the UNCAC to have real weight — and generate outcomes that are good enough for the local nightly news — it’s time for UNCAC signatories to hold themselves and each other accountable, starting with an honest conversation.

Elaine Dezenski is Senior Director and Head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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