At the fourth meeting of China’s leading group for reform, President Xi Jinping called for cuts to the “unreasonably high” incomes of executives at state-owned enterprises. He also vowed to eradicate the “entitled consumption” and perks that come with high-ranking positions. When I heard this news, I happened to be visiting with an SOE executive in Hong Kong. His first reaction: “This will be difficult.”
I could understand his response, for I have even more experience than he does in working with state-funded companies. In the early 1990s, I was just over 20 years old when I was sent by the government to work at a Chinese-funded company. Though my salary at the time was over 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (more than 10 times the salary of a similar position in mainland China), I quickly realized that no supervisor in a state-run company lived solely off of their salary. The value of the “perks” they got, combined with fabricated expense reports that were covered by the public , could be dozens of times larger than their official salary.
That was over 20 years ago, and we all know what has happened since then. Today, executives at SOEs or companies that receive government funding have advanced along with the times: they have practically limitless access to perks and “expense accounts!” Like Xi Jinping, past Chinese leaders have vowed to address this situation, but their words came to nothing. It seems that everyone agrees: trying to thoroughly eradicate the problem is “mission impossible.” But why is it impossible?
It’s clear to everyone that China’s top leaders had never been truly determined to wipe out corruption at SOEs. After a while, people have not only come to see this unhealthy practice as normal, but some people have even explicitly labeled corruption as a “Chinese characteristic.” No matter how strongly the media, netizens and common people protest, this “characteristic” has been here to stay and officials could act as they pleased. No one seemed to care that these executives were lining their pockets with state assets and state property. The “perks” and fraudulent expense reports used to enrich each of these executives could have saved the lives of Chinese people who cannot afford healthcare, or could have helped poor Chinese children return to school in a classroom newly equipped with desks and chairs.
Fighting corruption with no reservations has long been thought to be “mission impossible” in China. In the past, each new administration ousted one or two “tigers.” Despite this, in truth corruption has been getting more serious in recent years, and there are more and more “tigers” as a result. After a long time of this, all of my friends think that corruption is just a characteristic of China, or at least a characteristic of this regime. Unless the regime is replaced, the thinking goes, corruption cannot be eliminated. No wonder even the Global Times began to find excuses for corruption! Because of this, when people saw Xi Jinping take office and begin “swatting tigers and flies,” at first everyone was sure that he was just putting up appearances, giving himself a good name while repressing his rivals. Today, Chinese people have seen high-ranking officials like Xu Caihou and Bo Xilai fall. They have seen a succession of corrupt officials from around the country thrown in prison. But still, they don’t dare to believe their eyes. They remain suspicious, and can’t understand what Xi is actually trying to do.
In both word and deed, Xi has made it clear that he wants to fight corruption. He wants to strike fear into the hearts of corrupt officials, and to do it by using the rule of law. Sooner or later, he will make use of effective anti-corruption methods, such as requiring public disclosure of officials’ assets. But when people hear this, they can’t believe their ears. Disclose officials’ assets? That’s impossible! They believe that it’s “mission impossible” for China to eliminate corruption while keeping its existing system. Further, they’re convinced that China’s leaders don’t have the determination, power, or capability to do so.
China has accumulated serious problems, which have made the current leadership’s job abnormally difficult. Most people, especially among the elites, doubt Xi’s determination and capability to solve these problems. This doubt unquestionably makes Xi’s reforms even harder.
One of my own experiences can help illustrate this problem. Since I took up writing ten years ago, I have generally written at least one article every one or two months calling on China to quickly establish “core values” like freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. I see these values as providing both the impetus and the path for China’s rise, as well as goals for Chinese people to strive toward. As the years passed, my persistence and “stubbornness” made even some of my most passionate followers gradually start to look at me with sympathy, like I’m poor, doomed Sister Xianglin from Lu Xun’s story “Blessing.” They long ago stopped believing in China, stopped believing that this regime would turn “freedom, democracy, and rule of law” into values and begin sincerely promoting and implementing these concepts.
In 2012, the 18th Party Congress put forward the “12 socialist core values” and repeatedly emphasized that every level of government should foster and implement these concepts. Today, these words are plastered all over streets in China; these 12 words even flash on the sides of buses in Guangzhou. I was even more hopeful when I heard Xi Jinping explain these “socialist core values” at Peking University and elsewhere. I thought this might be a turning point, just like Xi’s fight against corruption. But my hopes were soon dashed.
My contacts within the government, my readers, my friends, even those democracy advocates who are constantly talking about “freedom, democracy, and rule of law” — no one cares the slightest bit about these “12 socialist core values.” People don’t believe in them one bit, and are quite sarcastic about it. Many of my friends believe that implementing these 12 words in China is “mission impossible.” But if that’s true, then why did they waste their time to research and promote these ideas in the first place? Even more ridiculous, when I continue to talk about the core values of “freedom, rule of law, and democracy” (just like I have for the past ten years), some democracy advocates ridicule me as a “teacher’s pet” or suck-up. To be frank, there’s nothing that make me feel more hopeless.
Up until today, how many “impossible” tasks has China finished? Obviously, the remaining tasks are even more “impossible.” These jobs have fallen to the current leadership, and to Xi Jinping, as well as our entire generation. The main reason these “missions” are often thought to be “impossible” is because of the top leadership. If China’s highest leaders promise too much and always fail to achieve their goals, then who will believe them? If leaders shout all day about fighting corruption but the people are still tormented by “tigers and flies,” then who will dare to believe them? When the people believe something is impossible, then even the possible will become impossible!
But a blanket attitude of suspicion, doubt, and even cool detachment doesn’t help anything — just the opposite, in fact. With this atmosphere, leaders’ attempts to tackle the “mission impossible” are made even harder, and those who want to block reforms can easily fulfill their goals. China’s reforms don’t rely only on top leadership, nor can they be achieved only through grassroots efforts. Reform will take cooperation and a concerted effort from top-down and bottom-up. Fighting corruption and striving to implement reforms are closely related to the lives of us common people. If the people have the right to enjoy the fruits of reform, then all people, including you and me, have a responsibility to push for reform, to strive for reform, to at least call loudly for reform. It’s just as Xi said in his recent speech: we should make people feel the true effects of reform, and guide both the cadres and the masses to support reform.
When elites and commoners alike are striving for reform, taking on the “mission impossible” with Xi Jinping, is anything truly impossible?
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 www.yanghengjun.com.