Monday, December 29, 2008

"Officials should shovel pig manure"

One of the few remaining bright spots left in the pathetic shell of a once great paper is the LA Times' China reporting. Which is not to say this area hasn't been greatly diminished; one of my favorites, Ching-Ching Ni has apparently left China - her stories, focusing on the lives of "ordinary" Chinese will be greatly missed.

Rather than go into a full-on rant here about how much I loathe Sam Zell and what he's done to a paper that I subscribed to for over 20 years (it's late, and I've got writing to do), I'll just say that I'm surprised any good reporting goes on there at this point, and that Mark Magnier's latest feature on corruption in China is well-worth a look. Magnier's lengthy piece provides numerous examples of the systematic corruption that pervades all aspects of Chinese society:
Corruption is an everyday experience for millions of Chinese that taints not just schools, but relations in business, on farms and in factories, and potentially any contact citizens have with officialdom. Foshan appears no more corrupt than any other city in China, experts say. It is noteworthy only as an example of a pervasive problem that threatens China's stability and political system.

Senior Communist Party officials know that decades of remarkable economic progress are at risk if graft and bribery stretch the chasm between the haves and have-nots too wide. But they have limited room to maneuver. Any meaningful effort to crack down endangers the party's monopoly on power.

The system depends on legions of police, local party and government officials to enforce Beijing's policies and quash dissent. All too often, critics say, local officials regard their position as a license to steal.

Throughout the country, the prodigious rate of economic growth has created a gold rush mentality. Absent both the strictures and the social safety network of Mao Tse-tung's rigid system, millions of people are seeking ways to prosper -- legally or illegally.

Corruption accounts for an estimated 3% to 15% of a $7-trillion economy, and party membership can be an invitation to solicit bribes or cut illegal land deals. Membership hit 74 million at the end of 2007, a 10% jump from 2002, as moneymaking opportunities increasingly trumped ideology.

Nearly 5,000 officials at the county level or above were punished for corruption over the last year, state media reported Friday.

"Of course everyone hates corruption," said Qiao Zhanxiang, a Beijing lawyer who took on the Ministry of Railways for alleged price gouging and lost. "But everyone also wants to be a part of it."

The result is a growing divide between those who benefit from corruption and their victims. It is at the grass-roots level where this chasm is most harshly felt, among those abused by the system, like Liao and Chen, or others who have simply been left behind.

"Common Chinese people are in hell," said Ai Xiaoming, a documentary film producer and professor at Zhongshan University in the neighboring city of Guangzhou. "Hell is not some future. It's right now."
I had a revelation of sorts the other night, that a part of my pessimism about this being the "Chinese Century" came from my own idealism - that a country with as large a population as China, where so many of its citizens were impoverished and exploited had too many internal problems to overcome to become the globe's major superpower. My realization was that perhaps the Chinese leadership only cared about its citizens' well-being to the extent necessary to keep them from open rebellion. That its export economy and subsidization of American debt at the expense of spreading the wealth internally were a part of a larger, long-range plan, to buy up enough foreign assets to ensure control in the future. I still think that may be true. But I also think that this strategy has its own risks. It's riding the tiger, a race to secure wealth before society collapses from the weight of its own contradictions.

After the widespread and grandiose scale of the abuses in the American financial system that have nearly ruined our economy, it's hard to get too self-righteous about the problem of corruption in China. But there are some important differences. Most of us in America experience American corruption in the abstract, or at a step removed. A lot of us could point to things that have happened in our lives as a consequence of wide-spread corruption - we can't get loans, maybe we've even lost our jobs, in part because of a chain of events kicked off by criminal greed. The difference is that most of us don't experience the corruption directly. In China, peoples' daily lives are afflicted by corruption at every turn. They can't depend on the validity of common transactions that most of us take for granted. This is one of the factors that I consider when I read or hear pundits predict the Chinese century. China will never become the predominant global power until it creates a society where ordinary Chinese people can have real faith that the social contract exists for them and that basic promises between individuals, between institutions, will be kept.

(Here's another article with a pessimistic view - or maybe optimistic, in that it posits the global economic crisis will lead to the downfall of China's one-party system).

(H/T to China Law Blog)

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