Corruption seems to be a universal topic of political angst. In China, there has been heavy criticism of corruption from different angles by Chinese leaders and both the Chinese and Western media. It seems to be growing like mushrooms after the spring. As the Chinese saying goes, when one corrupted person falls, thousands of others stand up.
Criticism about corruption tends to be similar across cultures. That is, those people involved in corrupt activities are severely blamed and seen as immoral abusers of power. Chinese people share this vision. They are resentful about corruption, particularly among government officials.
Many officials have been jailed and even executed for corruption in China. However, when ordinary individuals try to pursue their own interests, such as engaging in business activities, finding jobs, seeing doctors or getting services, it is almost certain they will be involved in corrupt activities in order to reach their goals. The question is: should individuals be the target in controlling corruption? Is it realistic to expect a person in power to possess moral self-control over his or her corrupt behaviour?
Visiting China in February this year, I was curious once again to try to find out how the Chinese actually see and deal with current corruption. One Chinese business acquaintance declared to me that China was a mafia state and the Chinese government the biggest mafia. In his opinion, if you are not corrupt, you are out of the game. This man has run an interior design business for over 20 years and owns factories and shops. After 20 years, he is able to live comfortably in both China and Australia.
Dealing with government officials, he explained,
I am happy to see an official to come to my shop to "buy" something. It is a golden opportunity for me. It gives me a chance to get close to him and bribe him. Nowadays, those officials are very selective about receiving bribes. I would be really worried if he or she did not accept my bribe. It means I will never be able to get any help from him. Without his help, it can be extremely difficult to pursue my business interests.
According to this man, it is the norm in China that the person in power will get more profit from a government project than any businessman involved. That is why becoming an official is the top career goal for many Chinese.
Still, a businessman has to maintain a good relationship with the official so that he may receive more business favours later on and so ensure continuing profits for his business. This kind of networking is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to pursue their own business interests.
My business acquaintance also told me confidentially of a police chief in a small city who was earning 500,000 RMB (AUD 70,000) per month. His "business" involved giving people permission to run undercover casinos and brothels. In return, these people gave him generous kickbacks for the risk he was taking. If discovered, he could be held legally responsible and lose his position.
Talking to people in China, my impression is that whenever people want to do something needing official action or permission, the first thought that comes to their mind is, "Who do I know?" and then, "How much do I need to pay?" Knowing someone makes it possible to get a foot in the door. The second step is the entry fee.
A friend of mine failed to be promoted to a much higher position ten years ago, despite appreciation of his talent by his Party boss. This occurred simply because he was not prepared to pay a one million RMB bribe to the people on the selection committee within the municipal Party organization.
The government's intervention in business, as well as its dominant role in personal development and in people's daily activities, is so pervasive that it is hard to get things done without corruption. In China, personal connections and money are the key resources to pursuing one's interests.
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