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What About China’s Selfless Officials?

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China Power

What About China’s Selfless Officials?

The same system that fostered heroically selfless Chinese officials also creates an atmosphere for corruption.

What About China’s Selfless Officials?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A reader who works for the government wrote to me to complain about the mocking and ridicule public servants have received from society in recent years. Some people blindly believe that any public servant who gains a bit of power is corrupt. This is unfair toward the letter writer, who tested into the government system because of a wish to “serve the people.” Actually, I have received a number of similar letters and I’ve thought a great deal about this. Over the past few years, social and online resentment directed at corrupt officials has reached the level of “discrimination” against all government workers. It has even come to the point where it seems as if all government workers are touched by “original sin” — they can’t do anything right, making it harder and harder for them to do their jobs.

This phenomenon deserves our attention. There’s an inevitable trend toward “small government, big society.” Still, the situation today is harmful to society and to the country. Under the current system, where government workers are vilified in the eyes of the public, they are isolated or even rejected and discriminated against by society.  This hurts the morale of government workers, and will lead to workers slacking off, resulting in serious consequences.

So I hope that the public can be rational when considering the question of honesty in government workers. We absolutely cannot demonize our government workers. But I also hope that the government workers can rationally reflect on the cause of this phenomenon. I hope that they can realize that corruption doesn’t only hurt the public, but also threatens the government employees themselves. In light of this, they should take the initiative to support the current administration’s anti-corruption campaign, rather than fighting it. They also shouldn’t approach the anti-corruption drive with the attitude of just trying to weather the storm. Governments should adopt the same enthusiasm that China had when it first entered the period of “reform and opening up” to develop its economy. They should be determined to cut to the heart of the issue, pushing for the building of a clean government at the institutional and legal level to restore the good name of government workers.

In his letter, the government worker said that our system is not any worse than Western governments. There have been many exemplary cadres in China, like Jiao Yulu and Kong Fansen, while the American system has never had such figures. The letter writer wondered, do we really not need good cadres like Jiao and Kong?

I have to admit, what he said about the U.S. government never having selfless officials like Jiao Yulu and Kong Fansen is true. Although America has many war heroes and outstanding national officials, have they produced any public servant who worked through a serious illness to the point of death? The letter writer’s question made me remember the many scenes where I have dealt with government workers in Western countries like the U.S. and Australia…

And now I’m really confused! In the hundreds of times I have dealt with Western bureaucrats, it seems that no one welcomed me (or any of the locals) with a smile or enthusiastic service. The vast majority adopt the attitude of “business is business.” They arrive at work on time, and when it’s time to clock out, they won’t work overtime because you arrived late. When something fits with the rules and is feasible, they won’t go out of their way to make things difficult for you. And if something can’t be done, it won’t be any use for you to smile and bring them presents.  It’s hard to imagine that a government worker like Jiao Yulu, who sacrificed his life for the benefit of the people, could ever appear in the U.S. or Australia.

Comparatively speaking, I’ve noticed a big change in the “customer service” of Chinese bureaucrats over the past few years. Some are offering more personalized services, and some have even adopted the commercial attitude that the “customer is king” and have started to implement “service with a smile.” But what’s strange is that most Westerners are basically satisfied with their bureaucratic system. Compared to China, they have fewer complaints about their relatively passive and low-profile government workers. And in China?  It’s like our letter writer says:  “(The public) seems certain that we’re all corrupt… I can’t even hold my head up high.” Why is the situation like this?

When the U.S. and Australia designed their government systems, they realized that the executive branch might become overly powerful.  So they put in place checks and balances that could limit executive power: the legislative branch (Congress) and the judicial power (the courts). On top of this, all power must be exercised in accordance with the law (especially the Constitution).  Under these circumstances, government work is an occupation, and not an ideal full of the hope of “serving the people.” They don’t have the authority to accept bribes and feather their own nests, but they also don’t need to cater to the people. They’ve merely chosen one type of job — the only thing that separates government work from the many other jobs out there is that they are, in principle, being employed by all the citizens of a country.  Hence, ordinary people have the right to find fault with them or criticize them (especially the group as a whole). But if the government workers respect the rules and obey the law, their “employers” cannot scold them for no reason, saying that “I pay your salary” and treating them like actual servants.

China doesn’t have this sort of restriction on the use of power. What’s more, the only powers that could supervise the government (the media and public opinion platforms) are under government control. This is why Chinese people believe all government workers are guilty of “original sin.” Under these circumstances, if you want to “serve the people” you have to sacrifice food and sleep, not stopping until you’re dead. In truth, it should be enough for them to just get their jobs done right — why should they have to work so desperately to gain public approval? All that the public requires is that they obey the law in their public and private lives.

You don’t often see government workers in Western countries “serving the people” in spite of a serious illness. For one thing, in principle making someone do this is illegal. It’s also inhuman and makes people suspicious. Public servants should always maintain their physical and mental health while at work. If you continue to “serve the people” and refuse to treat your cancer or other ailments, do you really think that you’re doing a better job than a healthy person could do? This is being irresponsible not only toward yourself, but even more toward the people!

So in the Western bureaucratic system, no one hopes to see good cadres like Jiao Yulu and Kong Fansen — and they could never appear in the West. But it’s different in China: everyone hopes to see more Jiao Yulus and Kong Fansens, pure, incorruptible officials who work for the people. Actually, China has more than a few cadres like this, but the bureaucracy that nurtured these role models is still not respected by the public. Why? The answer is quite simple. If on one hand you get a Kong Fansen, at the same time you get many people like Wang Baosen. If you get a Jiao Yulu, you can be sure to also get a pile of Liu Zhijuns and Wang Lijuns. And this has become a big problem.

Some people might ask, are these two factors really related? Why can’t we avoid Wang Baosen completely, and have every public servant be like Kong Fansen? Now that’s difficult! Without legal and institutional safeguards and restrictions, human nature will go to one of two extremes: either extremely selfish (and the cases are more and more shocking, like the official who had 100 million RMB in cash hidden at his house) or extremely selfless (like Jiao Yulu, who keep working even after getting cancer, as if he thought the 1.3 billion Chinese people would starve to death without him). In reality, we’ve discovered that the more greedy an official is, the more selfless he appears on the surface. The more capable an official is, the more extreme their corruption.  And those officials who dedicate their lives to public service, treating the people like their children, can become the worst, most arbitrary tyrants who justify their actions by saying, “It’s for your own good.”

It is a defect that the Western bureaucracy has never created a Kong Fansen or a Jiao Yulu. But on the other hand, it’s exactly this sort of system that has successfully prevented widespread bribery and corruption. In China, we had our Kong Fansen and Jiao Yulu, but we haven’t seen any good cadres like  them in recent years. On the contrary, we’ve had corrupt officials one after another: Ji Jianye, Liu Zhijun, Li Chuncheng, Jiang Jiemin, Liu Tienan, and on and on. This number of bad officials has long since destroyed the people’s gratitude toward and hope for good officials. If they had to choose, don’t you think that the majority of average Chinese would rather get rid of Kong Fansen if meant having fewer corrupt officials?

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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