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Anecdotally, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign is working, but a new report on world corruption suggests otherwise.Carlos Barria/Reuters

To even a casual observer of the Chinese political system, it looks like the tigers are being bagged, the flies swatted and the foxes hunted, as President Xi Jinping leads an extensive anti-graft campaign that has felled some of the country's most powerful figures.

But a controversial new report from Transparency International suggests the often lurid tales of dirty officials meeting their demise – and along with them, their underground lairs stuffed with golden treasure and cash stored by the pallet – are misleading. The organization's newest Corruption Perceptions Index ranking shows China actually losing ground on graft, falling 20 places in a worldwide ranking to 100th, behind Liberia, Colombia and the Philippines.

In other words, the chase after flies, tigers and foxes – as Mr. Xi has termed the campaign to bring down crooked bureaucrats, both big and small, as well as those who have fled the country – does not look to be bearing much fruit.

What it shows for China is "that you cannot fight corruption by adopting a prosecutorial approach," said Rukshana Nanayakkara, Asia-Pacific regional outreach manager with Transparency International, the NGO that works around the world to press for cleaner government. He compared China's method of high-profile arrests and asset seizures to stripping a tree of leaves while leaving its roots and trunk untouched.

"If you want to kill a tree, you have to take it out from the roots," he said. "History has proven there are reasons why corruption prevails unless you really access the systemic issues."

China has avoided the most important steps to quash graft, such as requiring asset disclosure by public officials and creating a decentralized system that empowers individual citizens to combat wrongs they see. In China, by contrast, lawyers and activists who have pushed for asset disclosures have been imprisoned.

The Corruption Perceptions Index incorporates surveys, studies and the opinion of international organizations. It is meant to reflect the views of outsiders who work with foreign systems and report their experiences on such measures as competing for public contracts and dealing with government officials.

Yet China's fall in the rankings raised eyebrows inside the country. Academics and well-connected business leaders struggled to match its findings with their experiences at a time when corruption seems, at least temporarily, to have receded.

The anti-graft campaigns are bringing a lot of ugliness into the open. A recent Chinese state media report – broadly circulated, then quickly censored and expunged from the Internet – documented the striking professional characteristics of the country's corruption. Some of those paying bribes sought corporate sponsorship. Others got bank loans, or paid on instalment systems. One corrupt official had set rates: from the equivalent of $37,000 for a junior government post to $1.85-million for a deputy mayor position.

The circulation of those details may influence how the country is perceived, suggesting a way the Transparency International rankings could be squared with the experience of those seeing improvements.

"The recent crackdown is exposing the extensive and broad depth of corruption nationwide," said James Zimmerman, Beijing managing partner of international law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, LLP.

"The negative perception is driving down China's stature in the [Transparency International] ranking."

Yet in addition to its extensive anti-graft campaign – with rapid strike forces conducting raids on various regions, interviewing tens of thousands and placing more than 50 high-level officials under investigation since 2012 – Beijing has also begun taking more substantive steps.

On Tuesday, it announced plans to require national property registration by early next year, a key measure in forcing people to disclose their assets. President Xi has also openly discussed the need for corporate registries that show beneficial ownership.

Besides that, Chinese officials once accustomed to demanding sumptuous treatment now seem to be voting against extravagance with their renminbi, forcing restaurants to cut expensive menu items such as sea cucumbers, hotels to lower their star ratings and high fashion to recalibrate its expectations. Bain & Co., the consulting firm, expects luxury sales to fall 2 per cent in China this year. One executive said Chinese officials, once happy to show off their German and Japanese-made cars, now seem permanently conjoined to cheaper vehicles that come off Chinese assembly lines.

Declining sales offer "hard evidence" that "people really have pulled back. This swatting flies and killing tigers campaign has really scared a lot of people," said David Moser, academic director of an overseas Chinese culture and language program at Capital Normal University.

Philip Carmichael, a two-time former chairman of The American Chamber of Commerce in China who has spent nearly 40 years in China, said his recent experience suggests the corruption problem "is getting significantly better." He tied part of it to the increasing number of Chinese companies who have reached international scale, and need clear pathways for goods and procurement in order to maintain massive operations.

The changes have their advantages, too: "There is less of a propensity to do over-the-top dining and entertaining," Mr. Carmichael said. "Maybe I can lose a few pounds."