Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has small time corrupt officials scurrying for cover like cockroaches when the kitchen light goes on. This house cleaning is good for China, but not entirely satisfying. The broom comes nowhere near the real source of corruption in China: the hidden world of influence peddling, power brokering and back room deals where China’s leaders, their families and well-connected insiders divvy up the proceeds of China’s development. Xi’s own extended family is worth several hundred million dollars and the net worth of Wen Jiabao’s clan is in the billions.
While Xi talks about “the renaissance of the Chinese nation” and a new “openness”, China’s Party and business elites continue to game the system for all it is worth. Not all Party members are corrupt; there is, for instance, no evidence that Xi or Wen violated any laws to help their families get rich. But even officials who are clean can use their positions to help family members, associates, or subordinates to get ahead. This help may involve nothing more sinister than a phone call from a senior official to a well placed connection requesting consideration for a favored relative. As officials get closer to the top, even the phone calls become unnecessary. Favor seekers wait in line to offer top leaders or their relatives and friends gifts, lucrative business deals or plum jobs. The fact is, in a political system characterized by opaque governance, lack of accountability, repressive and omnipresent state control of the media, and police and courts that serve the ruling Communist Party, the opportunities to use public office for personal gain are legion and it takes a strong willed person not to take advantage of them.
The hidden world of backroom deals that puts a select few on the inside track to opportunities created by high speed economic growth is one of the factors responsible for China’s huge income gap and its massively skewed distribution of national wealth. The fact that some insiders are rent seekers looting the country while others are simply smart business people in the right place at the right time is almost beside the point. The system that nurtures all of them is manifestly unfair and everybody in China knows it.
The fundamental dishonesty of leaders who talk of service to the people and socialist values while their families and cronies get rich has not gone unnoticed by Chinese people. They are well aware they are expected to do as leaders say, not as leaders do. In practice, however, millions and millions of ordinary Chinese have pursued money with the same single-minded determination that has driven Chinese elites. Many have also shown the same disregard for ethics and honesty that more than a few leaders have shown. China’s exceptionally cutthroat business and social environments are products of this amoral single-minded determination.
In fact modern China suffers from an epidemic of dishonesty, double dealing, fraud, cheating and outright thievery. Greed driven scandals emerge on an almost daily basis. Many of these scandals are minor, some almost silly, but others are downright lethal. Corrupt officials are central to some, peripheral to others. Shady milk distributors add a toxic chemical called melamine to milk supplies because the chemical makes the milk appear to have a higher protein content. Thousands get sick and several infants die. Milk company executives collude with government officials in a failed effort to cover up the problem. Vegetable sellers spray a carcinogenic agent on bean sprouts because it makes them look “fresher”. Factories dump toxic waste into local water supplies and lie to cover up. Airlines are discovered to employ pilots with faked credentials. Recently constructed bridges collapse because adulterated concrete was used to build them.
Over and above business scandals, an inordinate amount of lying and cheating permeates everyday life. Professors fake their credentials and publish plagiarized or fabricated research results. Students use the internet and the copy and paste commands to plagiarize their entire written output at university. American universities have learned to their chagrin that many applications submitted by Chinese contain fabricated materials. A legion of “consultants” in China create essays and transcripts from scratch for applicants. There are even cases where surrogates used forged credentials to take language placement tests for applicants whose skills are not up to snuff. Small vendors, restauranteurs, and service people cheat unwary customers without hesitation and friends lie to each other in ways that make your head spin.
The origins of this “culture of cheating” go back to the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s. Deng’s reforms created the framework for China’s explosive growth and opened the way for Chinese people to make money. The reforms began in a society that was exhausted and still reeling from the wild policy swings, violent political campaigns and murderous class warfare of the Mao years. Since it had come to power in 1949, the Party under Mao had worked with considerable success to obliterate traditional Chinese values. Values that could have tempered the pursuit of riches in recent years with ethical constraints. Mao’s final “gift” to the Chinese people, his brutally destructive ten year long Cultural Revolution, left the Communist Party’s legitimacy and the socialist values it had claimed to represent in shreds.
The race for riches in the new world Deng created got underway in the moral vacuum that existed at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The pursuit of wealth became an end in itself; means were irrelevant. Party elites and those connected to them were first out of the gate. These elites have remained in front to this day, consolidating their position along the way. Lacking an inside track, ordinary Chinese have nonetheless run their own race, often modeling their behavior on that of their leaders.
Today’s public anger over corruption is, in some respects, an expression of the revulsion many feel for the “culture of cheating”. More than a few Chinese are appalled by the pervasive dishonesty they see around them. They are enraged by the “anything goes to get rich” mentality that surrounds them with unsafe foods, fake medicines and toxic environmental damage.
Fifteen years ago, if you asked young Chinese what they wanted to do, virtually every one of them said “make a lot of money”. The good news is that today many give more nuanced responses. Job and career satisfaction are likely to come ahead of making money for money’s sake. They talk of quality of life concerns not directly connected to money: the freedom not necessarily to criticize but to say, read and do what satisfies and the desire for a clean, safe environment. Some Chinese, both young and old, are seeking a moral framework and guidelines for ethical behavior in the modern world from Confucianism, Buddhism or even Christianity.
The bad news is that an effort to address the underlying corruption and unfairness that has created the “culture of cheating” could bring China’s entire political system tumbling down. Xi and his colleagues are walking a tightrope as they try to balance the demands of Chinese society against the need to protect the system that keeps them on top. China watching is sure to remain an exciting business in the years to come.