Might corruption inspire Chinese democracy?


When local reporters asked a group of six-year-olds what they wanted to be when they grew up the kids ran through the usual list – firefighters, pilots, artists – until one small boy said “I want to be an official.”

“What sort of official?” The reporter asked.

“A corrupt official,” the boy said, “because they have lots of things.”

Quoted from The Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos.

There’s a widely held assumption that economic development brings convergence on Western cultural and political values. The logic goes something like this: once people have enough wealth to start making economic choices they start wanting to make other choices for themselves too. Like what they choose to say, with whom they choose to associate, and who governs them.  A succession of economists have tried to figure out how much wealth kicks off these kinds of demands. These days they generally end up with between about $4,000 and $6,000USD per person per year.

But not China

China bucks this trend. Growth in wealth hasn’t precipitated demand for democracy, especially not since Tienanmen Square in 1989. In one study less than 15% of Chinese students could correctly identify the meaning of the famous ‘Tank Man‘ photo, and 19% thought it showed a military parade. Parents encourage their kids not to take an interest in things that might get them into trouble with the state. There’s also no real evidence that richer, urban populations are more interested in democratic values than their rural counterparts.

You can posit all sorts of explanations for this: that Chinese (or Confucian) culture is less focused on the individual than we are in the West, that China is still reverberating from dire Maoism and its people want to be sure they’re full and rich before they put anything at risk, that the state censorship apparatus is incredibly successful at cultivating disdain for Western values, and change more generally.

Whatever it is, we need to confront the possibility, as Taiwanese defector turned Chief World Bank Economist Justni Yifu Lin says, that China might take a place among the ‘developed’ nations of the world, without becoming democratic.

I’ve started to wonder whether instead of a personal freedom narrative pushing China towards democracy, there might be a narrower motivation of preserving economic growth.

Corruption inhibits growth

Corruption in China is endemic. One estimate suggested economic loss to corruption was equivalent to China’s education budget, about 3% of GDP. Another showed the head of the railways was able to cream 4% of the value of any contract in this massive system for himself. Judges and politicians are not immune. Both display wealth vastly in excess of the relatively meager salaries.

And corruption inhibits growth. For starters it means the potential doubling of an education budget foregone. It means money out of the pocket of ordinary Chinese. It also diminishes social mobility. A study found that in every other developing economy parents’ education was the best predictor of a child’s lot in life. In China, it was parents’ ‘social connections’ to government and The Party. When patronage dulls meritocracy it reduces the incentives to work hard to get ahead.

The Government is trying to crack down on corruption. They have, unremarkably,  banned police from accepting gifts and, more remarkably, banned police from frequenting karaoke bars, historical venues for bribes. There have also been high profile prosecutions, including of Mr Railways. But for every corrupt official locked away there are invariably many more getting away with it. That’s why little boys want to be corrupt officials when they grow up.

Is the Rule of Law enough

It’s possible that the Rule of Law would be enough to curb corruption without democracy. Neither Singapore nor Hong Kong have what we’d recognise as democracy. But the independent(ish) courts enforce the laws the government creates, including, on occasion, against the government. In both countries low level corruption is unusual.

Corruption at a higher level is a tougher, though. In China judicial and political appointments are made through a complex and opaque system based on patronage. Money buys patronage; patronage brings money. The fifty richest members of China’ (nominal) legislature are wealthier than the full membership of the US Congress. When a company CE is appointed to a major Party post, the value of their company rises about 3%.

It’s easy to imagine politicians buying off judges  who have themselves bought their own position. The corrupt equilibrium can be maintained so long as officials don’t get too greedy, and an occasional sacrificial lamb is slaughtered.

What is needed is a change of the currency of accountability from money and patronage to popular support (i.e. democracy). A transition to democracy would no doubt be bumpy, and it might end up with ‘Democracy with Chinese characteristics’. But, there is a path there that doesn’t rely on Western norms.

Corruption as a catalyst

Corruption is an observable and acknowledged evil in China. Chinese might reasonably resent the bureaucrat whose house and car don’t align with his meager salary. They might also resent paying for their daughter to get a job with the railways, or watching a less qualified colleague with party ties get promoted ahead of them. These are economic concerns as much as they are about fairness or rights.

Plus unlike Western values or democracy itself, talk of corruption isn’t really stifled by Chinese censors. It isn’t a topic that needs be discussed in completely hushed tones. Consciousness can grow at the same time as resentment. And, ultimately, the way to get corruption out of a system is to change the system.

So bring on the corruption, I say. The audacious, brazen and feudal corruption. It just might be enough to encourage democracy in China without so much of a whisper of human rights.

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