Can youth integrity campaigns reduce corruption in Asia?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 12 Dec 2012 17:20 GMT
Author: Alison Harley
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‘My mother is a farmer,’ said Yang Jingtao, Integrity Ambassador and President of the Students Integrity Association (SIA) at Peking University. ‘Farmers have a lot of concerns about corruption’.

Land grabs and forced evictions are a constant threat for Chinese farmers, many of whom have little education and no idea of their rights. Yang’s rural background is one of the reasons he is a leading voice in a student anti-corruption movement that is spreading throughout China.

China's Youth Integrity Education programme is based on the idea that tomorrow’s leaders are among today’s students, so by instilling in them an anti-corruption message, China’s next generation of leaders will be clean, open and transparent. Similar youth programmes are a growing trend across Asia, a continent facing endemic corruption. The programme was inspired by Hong Kong, which credits its relatively low level of corruption today in part to a student movement that began 30 years ago.  

China’s programme is a partnership between Transparency International (TI) China and the China Integrity Education Network (CIEN). It initially developed integrity curricula for university students and has grown to promoting Student Integrity Association chapters in universities, running summer camps and establishing an Integrity Ambassador scheme, where top integrity students are selected to carry the anti-corruption message into the workplace once they graduate.  

Perhaps the pinnacle of the programme is an annual activity blitz marking UN Anti-Corruption Day.  SIA members recruit students to take part in activities which include debates, discussions on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and a national integrity knowledge quiz.

‘It is the single biggest event in the TI calendar’ said Liao Ran, TI’s Senior Programme Co-ordinator for East Asia.

However, while China’s youth initiatives are admirable, the bigger picture is that of some 2,500 universities and colleges in China today, only 22 have an SIA, only 15 offer an integrity education curriculum and, of these, only one on a compulsory basis.  With billions of dollars of ‘dirty money’ leaving the slowing Chinese economy annually and former President Hu Jintao warning that corruption threatens the survival of both party and state if left unchecked, tackling corruption in China has never been more  critical.  But can a grassroots student movement make an impact?

‘We are a stone,’ smiled Yang. ‘Put us in water and we create ripples.’

In Thailand, a similar youth programme is being run by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Six anti-corruption summer camps have been held across the country, spurred by a recent nationwide poll which showed that 63.4 percent of Thai people, and the vast majority of young people under 20, held the view that corruption in government is acceptable as long as they also benefit from it.

‘We are not saying we are going to change the situation now,’ said Radtasiri Wachirapunyanont, a student from the Thai Youth Anti-Corruption Network. ‘But at least we can have less corruption in the next 10 years.’

‘We had no idea what the interest level would be,’ said Kwanpadh Suddhi-Dhamakit, Programme Analyst, Governance Unit at UNDP. ‘We started off by asking students why they were there – silence’. But by the end of the first camp they were seeing results, and the Thai Youth Anti-Corruption Network began to grow on Facebook.  

‘We’d get messages like, ‘Whatever I do now I think, is this linked to corruption?’ and these postings kept us going,’ said Suddhi-Dhamakit.  The network is now 3,000 strong and very active.

In 1973 the odds of a student rally having any impact on Hong Kong’s endemic corruption levels, where ‘tea money’ or bribes were an accepted way of life, must have been slim. But it was one factor leading to the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the agency credited with  turning Hong Kong round.

‘Young people have been one of the major targets (for promoting integrity) ...since the inception of the ICAC,’ says Charmaine Mok, Chief Press Information Officer for the ICAC. ‘We believe that young people with good moral values help build a fair and stable society.’

Anyone who has ever pressured their parents to stop smoking or to recycle understands the power of youth, and also its limitations. While it may take a few years for today’s students to assume top government roles, they are heading into society and the smallest ripple can travel for thousands of miles. 

‘We believe we can make a difference and we are starting with our generation,’ said Thai student Wachirapunyanont, ‘Because this is our country, our money, our duty’.

‘If I have the chance to go in to government I will,’ said China's Yang. ‘And I will be clean’.