The Chinese Communist Party takes a line from the Catholic Church

The notion of an end to corruption under the current system of government is a logical impossibility. Corruption is riven into the fabric of Chinese society.

Charles Humphrey
24 November 2012

Since I began my immersion in Chinese society over three years ago, I have come to think that if I was to compare the Communist Party of China to another organization with a global presence it would be to the Catholic Church. Both have opaque, complicated hierarchies, both base themselves on a fall-and-redemption narrative and both claim to follow the teachings of men with serious facial hair, but in fact seem to directly contradict their recorded teachings, in deed if not in word.

Most importantly, both of them are massive organizations that are locked into the same logic that underpins the actions of all bloated, hierarchical entities: self-perpetuation above all else. No surprise then that Hu Jintao's recent address to the National People's Congress took a page directly from the Catholic Church. Hu made an attempt at addressing the problem of corruption in the Chinese government that was as brave and effective as the efforts of the Catholic Church to address the problems of sexual abuse.

Hu's solution was basically to do nothing, to change none of the conditions that lead to corruption, to enact no policies or institutions to combat corruption but instead to appeal to the self-discipline and honesty of corrupt government officials themselves. Hu stated, with his characteristically sober face that the solution to corruption is that, “Leading officials, especially high-ranking officials, must ... exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff; and they should never seek any privilege.”

Yes, that’s right, all of you people (possibly including Hu and certainly including Wen) who have built your entire careers and positions on corruption and backroom dealing – stop, just stop. Hu clearly learned from the Catholic Church who's own policy towards corruption (of a more carnal nature) is similarly to say in effect, “we're not going to punish you for abusing children, we're not going to prevent you from being around children, we know you've been abusing children for a great part of your lives, but let’s just call it a day and stop abusing children, okay?”

Hu's exhortation to his universally corrupt comrades is likely to have as much impact on the day to day business of Party members for the next five years as the Catholic Church's policies towards sex offenders in the clergy has had in the past fifty. The logical consequences for China's continued stability do not bode well.

The problem is much more serious than the average outside observer can understand. The notion of an end to corruption under the current system of government is a logical impossibility. Corruption is riven into the fabric of Chinese society. One's success, even at the low levels of society, is entirely dependent on one's skill in building “guangxi”, which is technically a term meaning “relationship” but might as well be translated directly to “corruption” when we translate the down-to-earth meaning behind the euphemism. China faces a problem in what one could call “trickle-down corruption,” and once one understands how Chinese society operates the problem, as well as the impossibility of solving it without massive political upheaval, is obvious.

In China we have a government with absolute power and no accountability. Given these two conditions, one's ability to function on good terms with such a government is dependent on one's ability to placate those members of government who have power over one's activities or goals. The size of the cohort one has to placate depends on the scale of one's activities. A large company may have to be on good terms with the tax office, the administration responsible for renewing business licenses, the environmental protection authorities, relevant sector administrations on the high end and then your local police, tax collector, safety inspector etc., on the lower end.

Even a simple shop owner has to worry about the chengguan (by-law enforcement), local tax official, health inspector and so on. Every one of these “relationships” involves the need for some kind of palm-greasing. Anyone who operates a business in China must placate all the officials with responsibility over the domain of their activities. This is not handled in the way that one understands government oversight in the west where there are clear rules which must not be broken by both parties, checks for abuse of power and an open appeal system. There is no discussion, no clear rules, no appeal. A small business owner either pays the tax collector his bribe or finds his taxes hopelessly in arrears, loses his license and his business to someone (possibly related to the tax collector) who is willing to bribe appropriately.

The potential for this state of affairs to engender the desperation that leads to violence was illustrated spectacularly when a Hunan man by the name of Liu Zhuiheng detonated a bomb in the Changsha city tax bureau after losing the store he had spent his life savings renting to corrupt tax officials who claimed he owed ten years worth of taxes in arrears on the store he had just opened.  

Not only do business owners face these challenges, but even day to day affairs like putting children through school can require exorbitant bribes from parents. One couple in Beijing bemoaned the fact that they had to pay one hundred thousand RMB (~$15K) just to ensure their children could get onto the list for students who wanted to attend a particularly good school in their district.

The trickle down cause and consequences of such a state of affairs is clear. If there are high “black” costs to doing business, everyone in China needs to find ever-growing sources of income to pay bribes and buy gifts (which are usually resold) and dinners. Chinese people need to run just to stay still the way the society is currently operating. Having poor cash flow means endangering the network of relationship/corruption that sustain the fabric of one's life. And so people that otherwise would have been decent, honest and scrupulous are placed in a situation where they have no option but to use whatever little power they have in order either to extract bribes or con the foolish so that they have enough liquidity to fund their own bribe-paying.

The consequences for the hopes of a reduction in corruption at the highest levels of Chinese government are obvious in this analysis. Anyone who stops taking bribes will be unable to sustain their own corruption costs and therefore fall very quickly and dramatically from favour. That this happened to Bo Xilai, a man well-known for his fight against corruption, indicates that the narrative being fed to the world and Chinese people about Bo's story is more than likely to be a complete fabrication. Bo inevitably engaged in corruption. Everyone does. That he incurred the wrath of the Party to such an extent that his wife was tried for murder (whether she actually committed the murder or not is irrelevant) and his sex life and personal faults were put on display in a clear case of character assassination indicates to me that he was probably making genuine efforts to change the rules of the game.

In any case, one shouldn't expect too much from the next generation of leaders. The institutional structure of Chinese government forbids that any of its members reduce their level of corruption one iota if they are to remain in power. This is how the logic goes in Chinese society - “if I don't do it, then I'll lose my place to someone else who will.” This is not an exercise in self-justification but a cold reality of living under a system where accountability is considered a “western” ideology that has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.

The endgame for a government which is locked into ever-growing corruption is clear. It is this author's expectation that China will eventually collapse into a kind of failed state in the not-too-distant future. Under the current system, those who rise to the top will be those who can out-corrupt their fellow Party officials to fund their own corruption expenses in furthering their career.

The result for the flow of wealth and benefit to the majority of Chinese is obvious. The government structure of China dictates that whatever new wealth does come into the country will be funnelled upwards at an ever faster and ever more disproportionate rate as the cost of maintaining relationships inflates along with GDP. The inevitable result will be ever-growing social unrest, disillusionment with the dominant narrative of Chinese society and eventually either social revolt or complete social collapse.

When this happens, China's place in the global economy will be sufficient that its collapse may well bring about the greatest economic crisis in human history. It is best that the world put pressure on the regime to change as a condition for further integration and acceptance. The consequences of allowing China to assume the role it is stepping into without the necessary political reforms to ensure long-term stability will be disastrous for the people of China and the rest of the world.

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