China Power

Have You Been Corrupt Today?

Yang Hengjun explores the “culture of corruption” that has grown up in China.

Have You Been Corrupt Today?
Credit: Chinese currency image via Shutterstock

I must have written at least 50 essays on anti-corruption. Looking back, I realize that all of them are critiques of the system, officials, and the use of public power. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with this, because the source of corruption must be power. However, if all corruption cases are attributed to the system, the use of power and officials, does that mean that we can relax and ignore our own responsibilities? Can we forgive or even find excuses for our role in corruption?

As a whole, the problem of corruption is caused by ‘them,’ not by ‘us.’ But does that mean that we are completely innocent? Today, I’d like to talk not about ‘their’ problems but about our problems — our own corruption problems. First of all, I’d like to know: have you done something corrupt today? On average, how often do you cooperate in the corrupt acts of those with a little power?  Don’t answer too quickly.

When I came to Beijing, I finally had a chance to have dinner with a famous public intellectual. He had just arrived when he got a phone call. The call was from his child’s teacher, and the teacher said he was free for dinner that night. My friend told me that he had waited a long time for this chance. Many parents were lined up to invite the teacher for dinner and forge some connections. This intellectual, whose anti-corruption essays are sharper than mine, apologized and asked where he could buy presents for the teacher on the way. Then he rushed out excitedly, without a backwards glance.

I remember our son only gave a gift to his teacher once.  It was when he graduated from elementary school, in order to express our thanks (my son had been admitted to a prestigious middle school). We helped my son buy a beautiful card along with a gift card worth 10 Australian dollars (about 60 RMB or $9.25 US). When my son saw the gift, he hesitated and finally decided to remove the gift card. We can’t bribe the teacher, he said.

I know a fairly well-connected local cadre, a deputy director. He confessed that people from his hometown were endlessly coming to ask him to handle their affairs. Many of those matters could be handled without relying on connections, but it seems that his fellow villagers have gotten used to it. If they don’t use their connections, they’ll feel anxious. This puts the cadre in an awkward position. If he refuses anyone, then he’s not giving that person “face.” Then that whole family, and even the entire village, will speak badly of the cadre, saying that he bites the hand that feeds him. In addition, these villagers will often force the cadre to accept gifts, like a bag of rice or a basket of turnips or Chinese cabbages. Even if he tries to refuse, they will just leave the gifts in his office. This cadre is depressed because he’s too low-ranking to be transferred to another place, away from his hometown. Now, he has only two options: to have a falling out with his entire hometown or to wait for the discipline inspection committee to come and find him someday…

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I often get letters from readers, and this type of letter is not uncommon: “Mr. Yang, I have been reading your blog for years, and am deeply influenced by your ideas. Thank you very much… I see that you are pretty close to the officials in XXX (some place). My XXX (child or relative) is facing such-and-such a situation, can you help me? I respect you very much and I have no other way. You have good connections, so you must be able to help me. I’ve already prepared the money you will need to give them as gifts…” Brother, if I use the officials I know to help you handle a small affair, will you still respect me?

In the eyes of many relatives and friends, I’m absolutely not worthy of respect because I have been trying to live up to my words and never use back channels or connections to get ahead. However, if you try to gain respect by taking a stand in a place where “back doors,” “connections” and even actions worthy of the term “bribery” are so prevalent, won’t you become a loner, placing yourself above others? I admit, the only reason I can do it is that my family doesn’t live in China. Hence, I never preach from on high to netizens or my relatives and friends, because I know their life is full of inescapable “corruption.”

If you go to the hospital for an operation, if you don’t bring a “red envelope” you won’t be at ease. In a minor car accident, after Chinese people get out of their cars, they don’t exchange insurance information but rather are busy trying to get their connections within the traffic police to come and help. Everyone has insurance, but even if you don’t, how much does it cost to repair a car? Is it really necessary to pull both your connections and the Chinese judicial system into the mud?

If they are sued, people won’t think about finding a lawyer, but they will think about how to find connections within the court and other political and legal organs. Fortunately, Chinese people have tons of uncles and aunts. Except for a few hundred million peasants, almost every person can find some way to work their connections to decide their fate — and the fate of the Chinese legal system. The winner knows that it wasn’t a victory for justice, while the loser only admits that his personal connections weren’t strong enough. If society continues in this way, will there be any bottom line to defend, either legally or morally?

The shameless profit-seeking of the “flies” can only succeed with the cooperation of ordinary people. As for the ill-gotten wealth of the “tigers,” aside from the huge sums gotten from bribers and accomplices, there are contributions from tens of thousands of flatters and favor-seekers.

If I hadn’t lived overseas for so many years, I could never know that this “corruption” has already spread to every corner of Chinese society. It has become the state of the nation, our culture and custom. We can even say that every single person has been mutated by ubiquitous corruption. Of course, I know that if the overall environment remains unchanged, each individual has to go with the flow. It’s very difficult to be the only virtuous person. But what’s really tragic is that most of us don’t think the above-mentioned behaviors, which have long been labeled “corrupt” by civilized societies with the rule of law, are all that serious. Or people believe that the fault for corruption lies entirely with others, and not with themselves.

The current administration has devoted a lot effort to fighting corruption. I believe that we can move from curing the symptoms to treating the disease. Eventually swatting “flies” and beating “tigers” will develop into an anti-corruption system. It’s been said recently that future anti-corruption campaigns will not only arrest those who accept bribes, but will also detain the bribers. Really, if no one offers bribes, how could anyone accept bribes? However, long-term corruption has nurtured a deep culture of corruption, a sense of “custom” and “habit.” Corruption can’t be eliminated through an “anti-corruption storm” and an overnight reform of the system. Getting rid of corruption will rely on raising the quality of the citizens and awakening public awareness.

When we blindly complain about, criticize, and curse the corruption of the system and of officials, why don’t we search our own conscience and examine our own responsibilities and duties? Yes, we are the powerless; of course we don’t have the power to be corrupt. But even the powerless have a sort of power. We have the power not to bow and scape to those who hold the official seals. We have the power to say no to those judges who accept bribes and issue unjust rulings. We have the power to fight to the end against corrupt officials, to report and expose them. If we start with ourselves, and resist the “corruption” that comes from within or beside us, then the corrupt “flies” will have no place to hide, and the corrupt “tigers” will become true paper tigers.

Have you been corrupt today? Tomorrow, will you silently accept, permit, or cooperate in others’ corruption? When will you be ready to fight corruption?

This piece was modified and translated from a Chinese language piece on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at