Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of China’s 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein / AP

China held its most important political meeting this week in half a decade - the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. The congress sets the roadmap for the country’s long-term national development and establishes the party’s priorities.

A message that came out strongly in President Xi Jinping’s speech in the Great Hall of the People was that the greatest threat to the Communist Party was corruption. Xi specified that the Communist Party of China (CPC) would focus its oversight on the “key few” - those being leading party officials.

China’s intensifying corruption drive provides useful lessons for South Africa’s political parties, some of which have acknowledged that corruption could lead to their downfall. The CPC’s zero tolerance for corruption has led to harsh punishment for perpetrators, as the party’s leadership recognises that in order to maintain the trust of the people, the party needs to carry out clean governance.

This week the CPC is addressing the challenge of how to institutionalise the fight against corruption while maintaining a democratic system. Key to the party’s longevity will be how it manages the cancer of corruption that creeps into every level of governance, particularly given the size of the population and extensive party bureaucracy.

What differentiates Xi’s political philosophy from the leaders who came before him is his public commitment to “strictly govern the party” and to “put power in the cage of the law”.

This is in addition to his commitment to deepen reform, govern by the law and build a moderately prosperous society.

Over the past five years, Xi’s anti-corruption drive has targeted what it calls “tigers and flies” - that being both high-ranking and low-level officials. Strict governance has been implemented right down to grass roots level and about 648000 village-level officials have been charged with small-scale corruption. Equally as important, several high-ranking officials have also been taken down.

Two months ago the head of the anti-graft committee for China’s Ministry of Finance was put under investigation for corruption. Similarly, last month a senior military officer who sits on the powerful Central Military Commission overseen by Xi was detained and questioned about corruption. He was sentenced to life in prison for selling top military posts. A former top general and member of the Politburo Standing Committee has also been imprisoned. The former vice-chairperson of the Securities Regulator will also be prosecuted for crimes such as taking bribes.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) just this year received 260000 complaints of corruption, and it is remarkable that of those, 210000 officials have been punished for breaking the code of conduct. That number includes 38 senior officials from government ministries and provincial administrations. Last year 415000 party officials were disciplined for corruption.

Despite all the CPC’s stringent efforts to root out corruption among its members, the CCDI head said in the run-up to this week’s congress that there was a long way to go. Xi has argued that fighting corruption is an ongoing struggle.

The CPC’s serious efforts to tackle corruption must be commended. In our country it is difficult to point to even a handful of senior officials who have been successfully prosecuted for corruption, although we know it exists and is growing.

Punishment for graft in China is harsh compared to other countries, in that the corruption bar for officials to face the firing squad is R6million, although sometimes death sentences can be suspended for two years, and can even be commuted to life imprisonment if there are no additional offences. An example is former railways minister Liu Zhijun who was handed down a suspended death sentence in 2013 for taking R121million in bribes, instead he got life in prison.

There have been cases of sentences being changed from execution to prison if the individual confessed their crime and voluntarily returned their ill-gotten gains. Although sometimes there is no possibility of parole.

Just imagine if the perpetrators of corruption in our own country were to confess and return their ill-gotten gains in order to avoid severe punishment.

South Africa is not in support of capital punishment, a position strongly taken by Nelson Mandela, given our grave human rights record under apartheid. But we don’t need to reintroduce capital punishment in order to address corruption and ensure punishment is swift and enough of a deterrent.

The lesson we can learn from the CPC and its commitment to its anti-graft campaign is that if we allow corruption to fester, the people will lose faith in those that govern - from whichever party they emanate.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.