Corrupting China

Media and academic circles focus on China’s increasing economic and political power almost on a daily basis. Highlighted on the New York Times website is a section entitled “China Rises,” and major magazines declare that “nothing is changing the world’s political and economic landscape more than China’s joining the ranks of the great powers.” Such talk appears everywhere. There has been less talk, though, of a recent development in China that presents a more complex side of the country’s progress: the scandal of Chen Liangyu. Once a senior Communist party official, Chen was fired by the Central government this past September on charges of corruption. But his story hardly ends there. Chen’s sacking does not necessarily signal a fair determination of guilt. Some observers think that Chen’s firing is less about guilt of corruption than it is about guilt by association—with the political enemies of those who fired him. To complicate matters, with almost all of China’s news originating at state-run agencies, skeptical observers have little reason to take what they hear at face value.

Before getting fired, Chen was the Communist Party’s top official in Shanghai, a position that put him at the helm of one of China’s fastest-growing major cities. While Shanghai’s tall buildings and booming financial district are symbols of China’s new economic success, Chen’s story of corruption is not an unusual one, especially in a transition economy.

“The state has been transformed from its main role of re-distributor to regulator,” says Columbia political science professor Xiaobo Lu. “During this type of transformation, distortions such as corruption often emerge with new patterns, and the amount of corruption tends to be even higher than before,” he said. China’s transformations have opened its markets, resulting in more expansive exchanges of capital. Deals remain susceptible to tampering, especially by those in government positions of power.

Chen was in such a position, and, according to his government accusers, he used it to siphon money for personal investment from a Shanghai social security fund. This would not be the first time that the lines between government and commerce have become blurred, to put it mildly. Economic corruption is evident countrywide when cadres participate in business. Adherents of this practice are called “red-hat businessmen,” an allusion to their status as both public sector government officials and private sector businesspeople.

According to Ting Gong, a professor of political science at Ramapo College, corruption has become “a critical non-market factor” in China’s economic development. This assessment is supported by the World Bank, which ranked China as the world’s 31st most-corrupt country in 2006 and noted that the situation is not improving.

Indeed, Chinese people often complain about government corruption. In rural China, disenfranchised villagers have registered their dissatisfaction with local government corruption through various methods of resistance, from letter-writing campaigns to acts of violence against government buildings. During the 1989 student protests, the largest mass protest movement in recent times, NYU social science and history professor Craig Calhoun found that the corruption issue was featured front and center. An end to government corruption was a main demand listed in a 1989 petition of intellectuals, and in a number of surveys, it surfaced as the single largest shared goal among protesters in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese central government has become aware of its people’s concerns about corruption and has acted to improve its image. In some instances, the Chinese government has sought to reassure citizens of its trustworthiness through high-profile anti-corruption moves. The firing and imprisonment of Beijing party Secretary Chen Xitong in 1995 serves as an example of such efforts. Government regulations against corruption have increased over the past decade, and the government has attempted to establish its anti-corruption bona fides, stating that “whoever it is, no matter how high their position, anyone who violates party rules or national law will be severely investigated and punished.”

Despite this rhetoric, some have charged that the central government’s move against Chen has less to do with corruption than with political jockeying. Observers think the move could be a power play orchestrated by recently elected President Hu Jintao—a sort of purge of rivals to help him consolidate power. Firing Chen helps him in this regard because Hu’s predecessor and ideological rival, Jiang Zemin, maintained his powerbase in Chen’s Shanghai and allowed the city to run relatively free of central regulation. A relatively unregulated Shanghai is one of many “Jiang positions” that Hu wishes to reverse. Some argue that the investigation of Chen is a cover for Hu’s broader desire to move the Party away from the course set by Jiang. If this is the case, Chen’s story would represent yet another major element of Chinese life: the still-tenuous balance of political power, especially around times of leadership succession.

To make matters worse, a cloud of uncertainty regarding the veracity of media reports continues to hang over the case. Rated “not free” by Freedom House in 2006 and sixth-from-last (just better than North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar) in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index in 2006, China’s press is heavily controlled by the State. Though individual reporters are known to be especially bold in investigating corruption—perhaps because public interest in the matter tempers the government’s ability to crack down on such reporting—media reports remain extremely biased.

What we know is that something is amiss at the highest levels of Chinese government. It is more or less impossible for both Chen and his government accusers to be innocent of wrongdoing. Either Chen was deeply corrupt or Hu sacked him to consolidate his own power—or both. It is possible, after all, that Chen was corrupt and that the central government used his corruption as a pretext to eliminate potential opposition. If Chen was truly corrupt, the government’s action against him may be bold and just. If he was not, though, and Hu acted out of political expediency rather than respect for law, it does not bode well for Chinese politics.

Whatever the case may be, the scandal highlights deep issues that affect Chinese society and call into question China’s ability to become a world power that operates by Western standards. China is rising, but the country is working against a chain of corruption that could very well temper its ascendance.