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Swatting ‘Flies’: The Uphill Battle Against China’s Corruption Culture

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Swatting ‘Flies’: The Uphill Battle Against China’s Corruption Culture

Yang Hengjun investigates the role of corruption at the grassroots level.

Swatting ‘Flies’: The Uphill Battle Against China’s Corruption Culture

Fenghuang in Hunan province

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / chensiyuan

Before the National Day holiday, I went to Fenghuang and Zhangjiajie, famous scenic spots in Hunan province. It’s been five years since I last visited Golden Whip Brook. When I was there in 2009, I wrote a blog piece about an old woman selling goose eggs who told me that “the Americans have become beggars.” This became one of my most popular blog pieces; nearly all the readers who know my name have read this article. I can’t help but feel a bit regretful – this blog didn’t feature academic theory or clever writing, but only systematically narrated an incident I experienced. It’s easy to see that representative true stories have the most potential to move readers.

This time, I could not find the old lady selling goose eggs in Golden Whip Brook. The tour guide told me that most residents raise ducks; he couldn’t think of anyone who raised geese. There were also more than a few new residential buildings in Zhangjiajie. The last time I was there, the old lady selling goose eggs talked with me about how “Americans want to borrow money from China due to the financial crisis.” This time, my conversations with locals centered on the new leadership’s strenuous fight against corruption. To my surprise, the people of Zhangjiajie, despite low education levels and a constant struggle to feed their families, had very clear views on anti-corruption. One local told me that President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has good momentum, but it would be very difficult (and would likely take decades) for the campaign to really influence the lives of “low-class people” like himself.

Another local told me that, although those “tigers” were despicable, they don’t directly harm the lower classes, or at least not in a way that people notice. In fact, whenever “tigers” come to visit small towns, they are friendly and cordial. They even push the lower-ranking officials to complete their assignments. But the local-level officials aren’t like that – they associate with villagers day and night. If they have an opportunity for corruption, the locals will really feel it.

A driver told me that the local welfare funds, which were intended for people in need, had in large part been spent on those people with connections to government officials. There were people who received welfare even while owning their own cars. Another local told me, in summary, that the most corrupt officials are village chiefs, town chiefs, or leaders at that level. One local leader gambled all day, every day, and everyone knew about it – and wondered where the money came from. Still, there’s no way to prosecute such leaders.

Compared to the central government, which devotes its energies to catching “big tigers,” the locals I met in in western Hunan province were clearly more concerned about the ubiquitous “flies” they encounter in their lives. Their only criteria for judging the success of the anti-corruption campaign is to see whether or not the “flies” continue to bother them. As for whether or not fighting “tigers” is useful for intimidating the “flies,” almost everyone I spoke to shook their heads. One local believed that maybe that tactic would be useful it there were only a few corrupt officials. But if most officials are corrupt, they know that you can’t catch every single one, so they’re not afraid.

In many such conversations, I got the impression that everyone has high hopes for the current leadership’s anti-corruption campaign. But deep down, most people still believe that no matter how Xi fights corruption, at the present time it will be very difficult to touch every level of cadre, and particularly those who are among the vast number of grassroots officials. For this reason, even though the anti-corruption efforts at the national and provincial level are fierce, the campaign obviously remains distant from the lives of local people.

Because these people cannot envision a future where corruption has been cleaned up, the only way they can avoid being harmed by corruption is to find an opportunity to be corrupt – or to find a powerful backer. Based on this attitude, some grassroots people have developed a deep-set love-hate relationship toward corruption and “undesirable work styles.” They hate it when others are corrupt but will not miss an opportunity to be corrupt themselves. The “tigers” at the top eat the “flies,” the “flies” eat the little people, and the little people are always looking for an opportunity to bully those even farther down the totem pole. In my exchanges with people in Hunan, it was this phenomenon that made me feel both sad and helpless.

What truly makes me feel hopeless is that a culture of corruption has spread to a majority of people; it’s not as simple as being limited to corrupt officials. In one of my conversations, my counterpart sudden became interested in my status. I said that I used to be an official. He immediately asked, “Did you break the rules?” I said no, and he gave me a suspicious look.  I said that people can leave their official posts even without breaking the rules, and they can still care about clean government. After that, the previously harmonious conversation between us came to an end because he no longer trusted me. In his view, in all of China there could never be a public servant who left the government without breaking the rules, and afterward cared about clean government.

In one conversation with a tour bus driver, the driver talked a lot about tourism and corruption. I said I was aware of this issue, because I had previously worked as a low-level chief in a government tourism department for over four years. He immediately retorted, “Not possible!” His face was full of disdain. Afterward I understood – in his view, how could a “chief” from a government tourism department spend money on a tour in his broken-down vehicle? He thought I was blowing smoke. Thus ended our conversation about corruption.

These are just some small cases; there are some incidents that I find hard to talk about. Maybe because I’m pale and plump and know how to speak “bureaucratese,” people seemed to think I look and sound more like an official than a blogger. Because of this, while conducting my informal social surveys, I was welcomed and “respected” by many people. But when people discovered I was no more than an ordinary person who detests corruption, they immediately became cool toward me. I even made use of this mentality to fool others. When I was being abused or “bullied” by some low-ranking person, I would “leak” my “identity” in the conversation. That always solved the problem immediately.

In this moment, when the attitudes of ordinary people changed, I saw that there are reasons even beyond the system why corruption is so rampant. I also discovered the root cause of “bullying,” and understood why some people, after causing trouble, will immediately yell, “My dad is Li Gang,” or “I am a bureau chief’s son.” Outside of those few example where news leaked out and the bullying failed, most of the time, when someone yells “My dad is so-and-so,” it really is a useful way to scare off the “wicked people.”

Just like the old lady selling goose eggs, simplicity and honesty go hand-in-hand with ignorance. It’s hard to know whether to admire this, feel sad about it, or despise it. In the world, Chinese people are somewhat rare. Most of them are full of contradictions, both victims and perpetrators. Intellectuals and idealists can sit in their studies and naturally imagine every beautiful kind of justice and goodness. But if you plant your feet on the ground and travel, look, and talk with people, your ideas will be more objective and comprehensive.

A version of this piece also 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