Thinking Critically About Anti-Corruption Efforts (Part II)

As we saw in the previous blog post, the Chinese methods of dealing with rivals continues to cling to tradition. Running in parallel to this is China’s age-old struggle with corruption.

Understanding Chinese corruption from an outsider's perspective is complicated by the tendency to mirror image. Westerners, in particular, tend to think corruption is universal, something that is recognizable no matter what country or culture it appears in. In many ways this is true – the word is largely the same whether it’s коррупция in Moscow or διαφθορά in Athens.

At the same time, a particular society’s tolerance of corruption and how it is integrated into the political and cultural framework does vary from place to place. For instance, in the U.S. we blithely accept the existence of the “Chicago Way” or “Beltway Bandits” even as we prosecute politicians for insider trader or embezzlement. China is no different and there are deep historical factors which greatly influence what “corruption” has meant and what it means today.

Traditions of Corruption

To understand Chinese corruption, one must look back at the roots of the Chinese bureaucracy – namely, the scholar-official class which governed imperial China. Only people from this class could participate in government, yet they received little to no pay from the state and were frequently rotated to prevent them from creating their own fiefdoms. Officials had to strike a balance between ingratiating themselves with local wealthy power holders, meeting the needs of the common folk, and obeying the dictates of the capital.

Being good Confucians, scholar-official bureaucrats also had a duty to take care of their families and patronage networks, which grew larger as they gained more power. This kind of system meant that accepting money and support from constituents on one hand and doling out funds and opportunities to family and networks on the other, was an inherent part of governing. This scenario, far from being ancient history, is as true now in the Communist era as it ever was a century or even a millennia ago.

In this system, everyone is, by definition, corrupt. To make matters more complicated, to not be corrupt is to be the odd man out. On one hand, it’s akin to being in a criminal syndicate in that everyone has “dirt” on each other and everyone is equally “dirty,” so there is a circle of trust. On the other, to not take care of your family and your inner circle in the Confucian sense is a sign of low character and of not fulfilling one’s obligations. While Chinese culture does feature paragons of upstanding officials, a call to patriotism, and dedication to duty, these have not traditionally offset the more pervasive appeal of corruption.

For these reasons, corruption is tolerated as long in the Chinese system as long as it is not ostentatious and everyone is in on the game. No one is clean in the current system. A study of the commercial and financial interests of Xi Jinping’s family and closest associates demonstrated how profitable government service has been for him. Former Premier Wen Jiabao was lauded for his honesty, yet an expose on his family and their business activities revealed how much he has benefitted from the system.

Consequently, for all intents and purposes, an anti-corruption campaign in China is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Yet, while the hypocrisy is blatant, it’s not unique. Nor is the use of corruption as a way to eliminate one’s enemies native to China. Instead, it’s almost a matter of semantics. In today’s PRC, where ideology is not as powerful a weapon as once was, corruption has simply replaced yesterday’s accusation of being a counterrevolutionary or rightist.

As with the political angle, looking at the anti-corruption campaign through a socio-cultural viewpoint can clarify a muddled subject. When taking just these two factors in account – there are many more depending on how deep one is willing to dig – it is easy to dismiss some of the prevailing narratives and to be able to use this information to make informed decisions and strategies in China. This is just but a small sampling of the thought process that Water Dragons practices and our approach to issues that impact our clients.