Joseph Christian

The culture divide over corruption

By Joseph Christian (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-14 12:18
Large Medium Small

BEIJING - In Kaifeng, Henan province, there is an exhibition aimed at informing the public about corruption in China. In the exhibition there is a chair. It is not a normal chair. Three of the legs have been removed. One has been replaced with a sculpture of a woman's leg, another with a half-full glass of wine and the other a stack of renminbi. Each leg represents the three most common forms of bribery in China today: sex, extravagant banquets and cold hard cash.

The culture divide over corruptionIt is no secret that corruption is a major problem in China. It is also no secret that the Chinese government has been trying hard to curb corruption. The arrests of officials and implementation of new laws can attest to China's efforts. There is not a person in China that would stand up and declare that corruption is a good thing. Everyone knows that it is bad and that it hurts China's development.

That is why it is disappointing to hear that bribery cases involving government officials are on the rise by as much as 30 percent since 2003, according to China Daily on Sept 8.

I would have thought that death sentences with a reprieve handed out to some of China's most powerful men such as former China Petroleum & Chemical Corp (Sinopec) chairman Chen Tonghai and former vice-mayor of Beijing Liu Zhihua would be enough to make an official think that maybe life was more important than money, but I'm wrong.

Given the damning statistics it would be easy to point a finger in China's face and scold them for not doing enough to stop corruption. But such chiding lacks an understanding of how deeply the roots of corruption are intertwined in Chinese society. Some of the roots are old and deep, some are new reflections of an ever-changing society. Corruption is a very complicated problem: It is not as easy as passing a law or imprisoning an official.

Many Chinese people I have talked to found it hard to understand why there were such contentious arguments about the passing of Obama's healthcare reform bill followed by contentious arguments about implementing it. To them it was straight forward enough. Collectively the US wanted healthcare reform and Obama's plan offered that along with almost universal coverage. To my Chinese friends it sounded like there was nothing to argue about. Unfortunately, they failed to take into account the heritage of political debate and cultural dynamics that surrounded the bill in the US. They were assessing the US through a Chinese perspective.

Likewise, to understand China's struggles with corruption it is imperative to look at China's own unique history and dynamics.

For centuries there has been a saying in China, "the mountains are high and the emperor far away". While the exact meaning of this quote has changed over time, the main message remains the same. China has historically had a hard time getting local leaders to follow the laws and directives its national leaders institute.Coupled with massive bureaucracy, the opportunity for corruption abounds.

But here's the rub: How else can you govern such a large country with so many people without a plethora of local officials?

So why not appoint more reliable local officials? That would be nice, but sadly human nature doesn't make for such simplicity.

Since China opened its borders to the world, massive amounts of foreign investment has flowed in. Most of the money has traveled through the hands of China's massive government, often oozing through the fingers of local officials. While it is no excuse it is certainly understandable how one might be tempted to take a little bit for themselves. Historically it was the distance and mass of people in between that covered their tracks. Hopefully with the dawn of the digital age, technology will make this harder.

It is one thing to make a plan, but it is an entirely different thing to carry out that plan effectively. When Americans hear about corruption in China they will automatically think how it would be resolved in their own backyard. That's wishful thinking in China's case.

In the near future, I am sure there will be more bribes of sex, banquets and money but hopefully with a little understanding and patience China can reduce the problem of corruption. They are, after all, the world's most dynamic developing nation.

For China Daily