December 9, 2022 | Washington Examiner

From fentanyl to overfishing, China’s corruption demands legislative action

December 9, 2022 | Washington Examiner

From fentanyl to overfishing, China’s corruption demands legislative action

Leading global anti-corruption activists and policymakers are meeting in Washington this week to explore new ways to address global corruption challenges. Their timing couldn’t be better.

Corruption exacerbates many global challenges, from the environment to immigration, border security, human rights, transparency, good governance, and the opioid pandemic. Countering global corruption and the illicit economy should be a unifying theme for the incoming Congress, with enormous dividends for the U.S., democracy, and strengthening public trust in governance.

By lifting the burden of transparency and accountability on government officials, corruption subverts the rule of law and the justice system, manipulates public opinion and elections, weakens civil society, fuels illegal migration, and undermines development and needed reforms. Corruption has become a strategic “weapon of state ” and one that is favored by authoritarians who thrive in the opacity of closed systems. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become a vehicle for the export of corrupt practices that typify China’s domestic economy and governance.

From Kenya to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and beyond, lavish Chinese-funded investment projects have turned sour. The debt burden for local governments far outweighs any economic benefits these projects generate — except for those public officials who personally enrich themselves. China’s illicit trade supports fentanyl, Mexican cartels, and Chinese money laundering networks at our doorstep. In a new report, the Global Financial Integrity think tank highlights China’s role in driving not just fentanyl production but counterfeiting, wildlife trafficking, and many other illicit activities. It’s not just crime, it’s state-supported destabilizing behavior threatening democracies. Fentanyl has been described by a vocal group of State Attorneys General as a weapon of mass destruction.

The global plunder of natural resources is another threat that thrives on corruption. China’s illicit fishing industry pilfers essential food sources, depleting fish stocks and aggravating coastal security in the Western hemisphere. In Latin America and many African nations, corrupt officials are colluding with criminal gangs, traffickers, poachers, as well as state actors like China to degrade the environment on a scale unprecedented in living memory. These examples represent the tip of the iceberg.

The incoming Congress should be able to find bipartisan support to address these fundamental challenges to protecting U.S. and allies’ economic and security interests, especially at our border. More vigorous border enforcement and coordination could also target the sophisticated criminal networks that exploit our borders for smuggling, trafficking, and money laundering — all of which bring vast sums of profits to complicit governments — and exacerbate economic and societal pain of the fentanyl epidemic.

Unfortunately, last month’s G-20 Summit offered few new ideas on combating corruption, a sign that global leaders do not share the Biden administration’s sense of urgency. A unified Congress could target specific resources and promote more U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions that fight corruption, illicit financial flows, protect natural resources and food supply, and promote higher standards of development, especially in global infrastructure. Congress could also expand resources for collaboration, investigations, and information sharing with core allies in Europe, Asia, and the Global South.

Critical legislative tools to combat foreign corruption at home are failing to garner enough Congressional support to become legislation. Congress can take swift action to pass the ENABLERS legislation, a straightforward opportunity to ensure that U.S. lawyers, accountants, and financial facilitators stop working with corrupt individuals who set up opaque corporate structures, facilitate the flow of dirty money, and prop up reputations of kleptocrats. A unified Congress could help clean up Washington by limiting the ability of U.S. citizens to lobby for foreign regimes that seek to harm us. It is unacceptable when U.S. lobbyists take funds to represent our foreign adversaries and others who threaten democracy. The SHAME Act is a bold step to cut the connection between America’s foreign adversaries and Washington’s political lobby.

For too long, global corruption and the illicit economy have been treated as crime rather than drivers of authoritarianism and threats to national security. The Biden administration has laid the groundwork for a broader, more comprehensive agenda. Much more can be done. Despite political divisions, it would be hard to imagine Americans would be satisfied with a world where corruption and the illicit economy prevails.

Elaine Dezenski is senior director and head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research foundation in Washington, DC. Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow them on Twitter @ElaineDezenski and @eottolenghi.

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Issues:

China Sanctions and Illicit Finance