Scholarship and education

Why corruption is not a product of the reform

The four expressions of corrupt officials.

Last week the CPC's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that "an unprecedented inspection initiative has covered all 31 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities together with key State financial institutions," China Daily reported. A call for corrupt officials to turn themselves in resulted in 1790 party members confessing to trading power for money. Add to this the corruption scandals that hit a few senior party members recently and you can understand how people might yearn for simpler times when officials were honest, a time before money corrupted politics.

But did such a golden age really exist? This week's China Newsweek contains a column by Xu Youyu, a research fellow with the Institute of Philosophy at CASS. Xu counters the nostalgia for a purer, more honest age before Deng Xiaoping's capitalist reforms by arguing that corruption was indeed present during the early days of the People's Republic; it was simply more effectively hidden.

Xu's article fits in to the current left-right debate between intellectuals who advocate further economic and political reforms and those who think the reforms have already gone too far.

"There was no corruption in the past"?

by Xu Youyu / CN

In the face of corruption in contemporary society, there's a widespread opinion that "there was no corruption in past eras" before the reform. This viewpoint holds that although reforms did indeed achieve success in the form of economic growth, they paid a price in the form of morality, the tone of society, and social equality, and that the harm outweighed the good done. The belief is that privilege and corruption were far more rare before the reforms; the people may not have been rich, but at least life was fair.

There are major problems with simply supporting or opposing this point of view. However, under the influence of such a slogan, there are indeed many people, particularly those young people who did not personally experience the Mao Zedong era, who truly believe that it was a time where you didn't lock your door at night, where there was no theft, and where everyone was equal.

It is first necessary to explode this idealized wishful thinking. China was certainly no Garden of Eden before the reforms; privilege, corruption, and social inequality were present then, too, along with social contradictions and public complaining. The "four clean-ups" movement demonstrates the severity of the situation in which cadres used their offices to seek bribes and abuse their power to pursue their own interests. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong used "anti-bureaucratic privilege" as a slogan to gain the enthusiastic support of the public, demonstrating the acute social contradictions that existed at the time. In one directive, Mao said, ""The bureaucratic class is a class sharply opposed to the working class and the poor and lower-middle peasants. These people have become or are in the process of becoming bourgeois elements sucking the blood of the workers."* You can imagine the picture of social inequality and social antagonism that Mao Zedong is describing here.

The inequality of that era primarily expressed itself not in economics but in politics. Vast differences between party members and non party members, league members and non league members, or even activists and non-activists, in major, life-changing situations like school admittance, cadre promotion, and military participation. More generally, and more seriously, people were divided according to their family backgrounds into nine classes, after which their individual efforts and personal behavior basically didn't count at all.

At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a young man in Beijing by the name of Yang Guoqing* who, because of "class line" policies and despair about his future, stabbed an African and a European diplomat. Yang's execution was of course a fitting punishment for his crime, but if you look at it from the opposite side, how many young people were there at the time who were in despair but did not go over the edge? This overall policy of discrimination became naked argument by bloodline during the Cultural Revolution under slogans like "Heroic fathers have sons who are good men, reactionary fathers have sons who are bastards," most prominently during the "August of Red Terror" of 1966, when more than 300 former landlords, rich peasants, and their children were killed in Daxing County, Beijing. The oldest among them way 80 and the youngest had only been born 38 days before.

When later generations sought to understand and evaluate the social conditions of the past, they basically rely on written materials that have been handed down; people who lived through that era mostly rely on their own personal experiences when they look back on the circumstances of the time. The problem lies in the fact that when compared to today's age of media and information, that era is extremely cut off, so there are vanishingly few written records and memories of graft and corruption.

We can look at two examples. The first concerns airplane crashes. Until the 1980s they were part of the "dark side of society" that it was not permitted to report. Should we then say that China today is not as good as the past, because planes in the past never had any problems, whereas today they often have problems? Second, talking about "dark side" news in the past was a serious political problem and would invite punishment. In the early 1960s, for example, when workers in the city went home to get married, they discovered that famine in the countryside had killed lots of people, but when they returned and talked about it, they were labeled as criminals who "smeared socialism."

Under these circumstances, the circulation of negative information was extraordinarily difficult. Think about it: in the early 60s, in the region of Xinyang, Henan, alone there were more than one million people who died of starvation, but how many people knew about this? So judging the scale of corruption by the amount and volume of complaints is unreliable.

That I've gone on at such length does not mean that I deny that the problems of privilege, corruption, and social inequality are not serious today, nor does it mean that because the reform has achieved such great successes, comparing any single index with the past must show that things are better today. Because of the economy's market reforms, who knows how much greater the opportunities and temptations for graft and corruption are today. In today's China, graft and corruption are primarily due to the money-for-power exchange, whereas in Mao Zedong's era, a highly politicized era where politics overwhelmed everything, money was not the main theme of social life and there was far less room for economics. Purely taking things as they are, we must acknowledge that corruption is currently more severe than in the past; what we must clarify and debate is the subtext to this idea, that is, the complete repudiation of the reforms and the advocacy of a return to the past.

In fact, it is more important for us to consider that even though there are differences in scale and degree of corruption between the past and the present day, issues of supervision and restriction of power have yet to be resolved. For this reason, the direction for further reforms is clear. If we use "the severity of corruption" or "the existence of corruption" to determine the break between the pre- and post-reform eras, we commit a grave error.

Note 1: Mao quote taken from Dittmer, Lowell. China's Continuous Revolution: The Post-Liberation Epoch, 1949-1981. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988 1988.
Note 2: In April, 1966, Yang Guoqing, a 19-year-old Beijinger from a family of former landlords, entered a Friendship Store on Dong'anmen Street and stabbed two people: the head of a news delegation from Mali and a secretary from the East German embassy. For "attempting to use the murder of foreign friends to harm China's international relations," the courts sentenced him to death. Relevant People's Daily articles are available here; beware of the heated CR-era rhetoric.

Update: Blood and Treasure analyzes Xu's argument.

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There are currently 2 Comments for Why corruption is not a product of the reform.

Comments on Why corruption is not a product of the reform

The argument is similar to the one Lu Xiaobo makes in his book "Cadres and Corruption".

There's a similar point made about (fave newbie ex-pat China insight) guanxi in Yan Yunxiang's excellent Flow of Gifts, who points out back in the good old days the state of your connections with the cadre could be a literal matter of life and death in the face of famines and campaigns, yet the term was barely heard. By the time it was a buzz word, it was if anything less critical in many people's lives.

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