Please welcome guest blogger, jdavis – a phillyboy who is currently teaching abroad in China.
After living in China for a bit over a year, one of the things I’ve realized is that, while I’m fairly certain corruption exists in every country, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that flaunts it quite so openly. Corruption like this can really be seen at all levels, from office workers and teachers, to the police, to government officials. This, I understand, is not uncommon for developing countries, as I’ve heard similar things about India. But for a country so publicly vying for rank as one of the greatest nations in the world, it troubles me that such corruption is so obvious on so many levels.
For the past year, I’ve been teaching English in a second-tier city outside of Beijing to university English majors. Usually people don’t ask me for my views, perhaps for a number of reasons, but what seems most likely to me is that they’re afraid my view will be different from theirs. So, I was very surprised recently when one of the teachers in the foreign affairs office of my school told me he had been instructed by his boss, who had been instructed by the municipal government, to ask all the foreigners in their employ about what China could do to battle corruption. He asked me if I knew anything about corruption in China and I told him how I’d heard from a number of people that the election of village officials are almost always rigged, as well as reports of the Sichuan earthquake relief money never making it to the victims, and that it was discovered in 2007 that huge sums of federal money had been stolen, or used illegally by government officials.
I went on to tell him that, as far as I can see, some of the basic things to stop corruption just don’t seem to exist here. Things like monitoring agencies at all levels, checks on power, incentives for whistleblowers, and the like. He told me that of course, they have these monitoring agencies, but that begs the question then: why aren’t they working? One possible reason that I can think of is that the monitoring agencies may have made the rookie mistake of making their existence public, and then letting the officials they were monitoring know that they were being watched. In a country where guanxi (lit: relations) is more valuable than money, one can see where the problem comes into play.
I asked my students these same questions about what they would do to stop corruption and virtually all of them gave me the same basic, vague answers: strengthen the law, strengthen education, watch officials more closely. However, I’m simply not sure how much farther the Chinese government can “strengthen” the law after making corruption punishable by death.
What struck me most of all, though, was that as this teacher that I was talking to was stressing to me how much the government wants to end corruption, was how ironic it was considering that I happen to know that some of the employees of my university are just as corrupt as the people they’re trying to catch. Stories of teachers paying some official or other to get their job, or taking bribes so that their actual salary is nearly double their reported salary. Things like this make it difficult for me to respect the people asking the questions, since the askers may as well write the words “conflict of interest” in giant red letters across their foreheads.
And that’s one reason why I think nothing will actually happen. As I was telling this teacher what I thought, I noticed that he was writing down what I had to say. However, the two things he didn’t write down just happened to be my two best suggestions. One of them was that they should hire an ethical consultant from America (the reason I say America is because I happen to know that there are such people in America since the Sarbane’s-Oxley accounting laws and the collapse of Enron; I don’t really know about the rest of the developed world in that sense.) My second suggestion was that they should encourage more openness and freedom in the media. I gave him the example of how, in America, when it becomes public that an official is corrupt, especially on the government level, the media will ensure that person has nothing left of a career to look forward to except working at McDonald’s (no offense to you McDonald’s employees out there).
His response? “But, you know, the media is different in China.” I didn’t think of it until later on, but I really should have said, “Then why did you ask?”