View on corruption tolerance from international perspective

Is the corruption situation in China very bad? I have previously made a case that it is rather bad, but then when compared to that of many other developing countries it is not bad. Foremost, the situation does not lead to paralysis or impose a very heavy cost to economic well-being. Otherwise, it will be quite impossible for China to achieve rapid economic growth in the last 20 years. In my view, the following are key points when discussing about the corruption situation in China:

  1. Corruption tolerance is  related to the general education level of the populace, and the more educated they become, the lower will be the corruption tolerance level.  As the younger generation in China are better educated, people are less willing to tolerate any form of corrupt practices.
  2. China is still in the midst of transition from older system to a newly built one, enabling it  to become an industrialised, urbanised and modern state. In such a transitional environment,  laws and regulations that being written and implemented  are lagging behind the fast pace developments. It will take quite some time for  all levels of the society to realistically adopt or become truly aware of their implications.
  3. Low rewards and remuneration for officials promote corruption. The official salaries of officials are low, though they enjoy other material benefits associated with the jobs, like housing, car, holidays etc. In the olden days, Chinese officials serving the emperors were paid peanuts, and it was very difficult to live merely on salaries.  Except for a few stubbornly upright officials, like Wei Zheng during the Tang Taizong rule, most officials have to find other means of incomes to sustain their family lifestyles. Even the emperor acknowledged and tacitly approve of officials getting additional incomes, as long as they didn’t go overboard in amassing wealth. Hopefully today, as the economy grows further, the civil servants, police and army personnel will enjoy better remuneration and need not resort to other means to supplement their incomes.
  4. the argument that a more democratic form of government with free press will act as great deterrence against corruption, seems good in theory or on paper. But in reality it is much more complicated picture, and the experience of  a number of developing countries (including India, Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa Kenya, Iraq etc)  suggest that this argument is not truly valid. Perhaps it is more important to have a political system where leaders are committed to improving livelihood of people and where meritocracy is entrenched within the system, rather than having system where populist short-sighted leaders are put into position of power.

Anyway, here’s another interesting article by Zhang Weiwei which I have just translated.



The corruption situation in China causes widespread disgust and concern amongst the people. But we need to have a clear understanding of corruption in order to resolve this problem well. If it is not handled well, there will be great repercussions that results in the disruption of the progress towards modernity, and may even reverse it.

We need to have a good grasp of the issue. From a worldwide perspective, what is the status? What is the nature of corruptions in China? Can the problem of corruption in China be solved basically? And how to fix it?

The world’s most authoritative organization on corruption research (Transparency International) places China position as between 70 to 80 among 180 countries, and thus China is in the middle ranking, as shown by the following table (source: Transparency International website).

Finland Singapore HK PRC India Russia Ukraine Kenya
2005 3 5 15 78 90 128 107 144
2011 4 5 12 75 95 143 152 154

This position is nothing to crow about, as we cannot be proud about it. It is also not a calamitous situation, but China can do better. The results from the above table are   close to my own personal field study based on my own perspective: I observe the local taxi management in the airport. In Ukraine and Russia, which adopt the Western-style democratization process, taxis are basically controlled by the mafia, which correlates to the high level of corruption in these countries. Often when you are out of the airport building, several big men will approach you to sit in their cars, quoting prices twice higher than you anticipated. At the airport taxi service booth, the staffs will also tell you that should be the price. You have no choice then but to look for a taxi driver with a kinder face. Even if you find one, it will be unmetered despite the fact that there may be taxi meter in the taxi. Actually this is considered not bad, as basically you are safe from being robbed by illegal taxi driver, and it also brings you safely to your hotel, by just paying little bit more money.

Even this is no guarantee at all of Africa, where all sorts of cars without taxi signs and worn out cars are used as taxis. The crime rate is  high, and taxi robberies occur frequently. This situation shows that the basic lack of governance, where corruption has paralysed the basic functions of government and the market. In such a place, it is common to use service introduced by acquaintances, or just to use one or two reputable companies. Mind you that this is usually applicable to African cities with relatively high level of development, such as those found in South Africa, Kenya etc.

In India, the New Delhi taxis do have meters installed, but rarely used. The driver casually quote you a price, and if you want to use meter charge, he will say the air conditioning, baggage, and so on will be extra fees. It quite alike India’s political reality, where there is considerable gap of having a legal system and the practical ground reality of implementing the laws. It is a treat to return back sitting on a Shanghai taxi, after visiting those countries. If corruption situation in the world can be classified into low, medium and high level categories, I think corruption in China should be is in the middle category.

What is high level of corruption?  This is the type of corruption that cause paralysis, where without money being offered openly, nothing will be done. This is particularly prominent in some African countries where bribery is required to obtain birth certificate, identification card and passport, meeting with a minister or even the president. Traffic police summons are also very easy to settle, and any overloading can also be settled with payments. If you want a driving licence, the driving school, the driving instructor, examiner and clerk will all require kickbacks.  When Western NGOs donated second-hand clothes, the wife of the official responsible for distribution will  take away the best, and then  get relatives to open second-hand shops to sell the rest. Once I visited a drugstore  in  Swaziland  and asked for aspirin. The sales assistant said it has been taken away by the manager, though in reality he probably has peddled it away.

I am using the African corruption example to discuss about the different s with the corruption in China.

First, China is in the process of rapid economic development, is in midst of its own industrialisation, with corresponding rise in corruption. Whereas in African countries with high level corruption, the economy is stagnating and even retrogressive, no need to mention industrialisation,  but corruption is increasing. My preliminary conclusions are: corruption in China mainly involves the transition from old to new system which give rise to opportunists that exploit the many loopholes in the transition . However, with the institutional transformation being established and coupled with  innovation, corruption of this category can be dealt with.

Second,  is the so-called “natural resource curse”. In China, when people heard about new natural resource discoveries, they are pleased and are  confidence in management of the resources, as  resource belongs to the people. But in a private conversation with numerous African friends, they would tell me having no natural resources is better. This will improve quality of the  human resources,   efficiency and competitiveness of a country: having  fewer natural resources for a country is not necessarily a bad thing given the example of Japan, Singapore , Switzerland etc.  Being poorer in natural resources  tend to make a country pay more attention to human resources and social developments.

Conversely, in a number of natural resource-rich countries, they tend to fare badly economically. A  typical example is Nigeria, which originally depended on the agriculture sector for growth.  With the discovery of oil,  the agricultural sector was neglected.  Despite the development  up of oil mining sector over the past twenty years or so, lives of ordinary people deteriorated steadily, with  much money being  laundered into foreign banks. Even  domestic gasoline needs has to be  imported. In recent years, the international oil price has gone up several times, but according to the people I  met in Nigeria, the present living standards is lower than that of  20 years ago. Currently,  Beijing’s  development level is more than 20 years ahead of Lagos.

I have read  an article from Journal of East Africa, which  referred to the new discovery of oil in Angola, with the title: “As if gold weren’t bad enough, now they have found oil”.  With discovery of natural resources, governments will have ample revenues to do whatever they wish, and not subjected to institutional checks and balances and the supervision by common people. Since they do not need to impose tax, they   don’t have  tax payers and thus don’t require supervision from tax payers.

Third, Chinese corrupt officials dare not publicly flaunt their wealth, burying in the ground or hiding on the ceiling, or transferred wealth through children, and family and friends abroad. This is very bad, but the corrupt officials of African countries have no qualms  displaying their wealth publicly. Once I was in an African country, a taxi driver told me: “you see this villa belongs to the Minister of the Interior, the two blocks over there are his too. He handles  land matters, and so receives lots of kickbacks.” I asked him:” Why isn’t he brought  to justice? ” He said:” We  don’t care. If I were him, I would do the same too. ” He also said:” Our President has two ladies, an old and tough one, and a young and pretty one. ” I asked him:” Is it legal? “He replied:” If I were the President, I would like to four. ”

It is fair to say that tolerance for corrupt practices in a number of countries is higher than China  and this include even India, and Russia and  Ukraine as such. Based on this point, there is hope for tackling corruption in China, because our people hate corruption.  I hope that the people and the media expose the corrupt officials such that they have nowhere to hide.

Tolerance towards corruption and tribalism in Africa are interrelated . Once elected, many leaders are apt to use members from his own tribe as  tribalism is  deep-rooted in Africa. For most of these countries the concept of the nation-state has yet to be truly realised. I was in Kenya to see such a situation: a member of parliament was  accused of corruption by anti-corruption body, and police were sent to  arrest him. But he ran away to his home village, and the local folks in his home village were mobilized to protect him, forming three-layer of ring to protect him. The police could do little and retreat. When they left, the politician immediately held a press conference to accuse someone in the government of trying to persecute him and his tribe. The people of his tribe were whipped into frenzy, shouting slogans. Regardless of what is the truth behind the accusations,  you can sense that politicians in many third world countries always have ways to manipulate people to their bidding.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
This entry was posted in China view, News and politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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