Thursday, August 28, 2008

End and Goal: On Reports of Corruption in China From a Domestic and Foreign Perspective

Corruption is a terrible thing. It is inefficient. At its core it represents a personal diversion of wealth from the principals of the state (its citizens) to individuals (those who are the beneficiaries of corruption). It serves as a fraud and a misuse of power. All of this is well known. As a systemic component of governmental culture it can weaken and ultimately de-legitimatize any state apparatus. Government whose political culture more strongly demonize corruption tend to serve their populations better and stand a greater chance of surviving as stable and legitimate. Global political culture has increasingly come to see corruption as an evil with legal and political consequences. States have been authorized to repudiate contracts entered into on the basis of bribery. World Duty Free, Ltd., v. Republic of Kenya (ICSID October 2006). International organizations have increasingly condemned corruption and states have embraced international agreements obligating them to reduce or eliminate corruption from state (and sometimes) private systems of intercourse. See United Nations Convention Against Corruption, entered into force December 2005. "It includes measures to prevent corruption, make corruption a crime, strengthen anti-corruption law enforcement and international cooperation, and help States recover stolen assets." United Nations Information Service, United Nations Convention against Corruption Receives 100th Ratification, UNIS/CP/548 (2 October 2007).

Still, corruption is very good for those able to profit from it. It represents a means of taxing transactions based on the ability of holders of power to extract tolls for activity that they control. It can limit competition and assure certain communities or individuals of dominance of a market, business or political sector. In cultures where such mechanisms are viewed as necessary or acceptable means of social or economic organization, these sorts of practices might flourish. within political culture. Whatever its micro utility for the preservation of power and status distinctions within local communities, these sorts of practices are inconsistent with rising global culture. Even within cultures that condemn practices roughly understood as corrupt, there will always be a certain criminal element willing to risk condemnation for the personal benefits of potentially successful corrupt practices. Crime, after all, is endemic in all cultures--religious, Marxist, capitalist, totalitarian an anarchic. Governments are composed of people, it is not surprising that all state apparatus will evidence some corruption from time to time. It is the manner in which the state apparatus deals with the corruption of some of its agents, and the political culture that the state apparatus fosters among its members and citizens, that make a great difference in the legitimacy of a state system--no matter how authoritarian. It is with this understanding of the nature of people and institutions that most efforts against corruption focus on monitoring and surveillance, coupled with strengthening a culture of condemnation and a stronger enforcement of existing laws and the construction of a globally harmonized set of behavior norms about corruption.
"There are signs that the tide is turning against corruption", said Mr. Costa. Governments are being elected on the basis of anti-corruption programmes. There is increased transparency in the banking sector, and a stronger emphasis on integrity in the public sector. In September 2007, the World Bank and UNODC launched a Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative to help developing countries recover assets stolen by corrupt leaders, help invest them in effective development programmes, and eliminate safe havens."
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, quoted in United Nations Convention against Corruption Receives 100th Ratification, supra.

But corruption can also be used as a weapon among stakeholders in or between competing political systems. Because corruption--and a state's toleration or institutionalization of corruption--can serve as a means of attacking the legitimacy of that system, states and civil society actors have sought to use it as a political weapon. Among the most talented actors on this political stage are the organs of news media (whether or not controlled by states or other economic, political or social actors). The utility of the connection between corruption and the legitimacy of the political culture of a state, and between corruption and institutional mechanics for its containment were nicely evidenced in two reports of the same same story--one from the BBC (China Admits Mismanaged Funds, BBC News Online, August 18, 2008) and the other from the state news organ the People's Republic of China ($660 Fund Misused or Embezzled, People's Daily Online, August 28, 2008).

Both stories reported the 2007 Corruption Report issued by Auditor General Liu Jiayi. Both reports started in roughly the same way:
Central government departments and their subordinate units misused or embezzled about 4.52 billion yuan ($661.09 million) last year, for which 14 officials have been detained, the country's top auditor said yesterday. A total of 88 people have been arrested, prosecuted or sentenced, and 104 people handed administrative punishments for the violations in 2007, Auditor-General Liu Jiayi said in his annual report to the national legislature.
$660 Fund Misused or Embezzled, supra. From there the focus of the reports diverge in significant ways--and to political effect. Let's start with the People's Daily Report. This report emphasized the institutional aspects of the issue of corruption. It is grounded in the assumption of the legitimacy of the system and of the marginalization of the conduct. The report first turned to the details of the extent of the corruption within the central state apparatus:
The NAO has named 10 central departments, including the education and commerce ministries, the National Bureau of Statistics, State Administration of Taxation and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, as the violators. $660 Fund Misused or Embezzled, supra.
And then in the local state sectors, involving land use fees and the sort of local construction corruption, misuse of housing funds and improper local loans that Western governments have long been used to. Id. Lastly, it turned to the financial sector where it reported "Audit of nine financial institutions, including the Agricultural Bank of China, showed 14.2 billion yuan ($2.07 billion) had been used illegally, the report said, and about 140 suspects from these institutions were handed over to judicial departments." Id. The analytical part of the report was fairly straightforward, in a Western sort of way:
Though central government departments have become more adept at handling budgets, more steps need to be taken to better manage allocations, Liu said. Liu assumed the auditor-general's post in March and this is his first report to the NPC Standing Committee. He succeeded Li Jinhua, known for his courage in revealing the government departments' fund mismanagement and raising an "audit storm" every year since 1999. Id.
What should be striking about both the effort and the report is its blandness. The Chinese appear to be doing what most governments now attempt--highlighting and presenting in a a positive way governmental efforts to reduce corruption. And the focus of the criticism was on systems integrity and effectiveness. This is what one might expect of a report of corruption from, say, the urban centers of New Jersey or Sao Paulo.

That focus is made clear by the list of suggested related stories:
Chinese senior official urges more efforts in curbing official misconduct, People's Daily Online July 28, 2008 ("A senior Chinese official on Monday urged discipline inspection departments to work harder to fight corruption, breach of duty and other misconduct that harm the public interest."); Senior official vows to root out corruption, People's Daily Online July 23, 2008 ("China will intensify its cooperation with the international community and learn from other countries' experience to fight corruption and ensure clean governance, a senior leader said yesterday."); Corruption reports boom in SW China city after text message campaign, People's Daily Online July 15, 2008 ("Prosecutors in southwest China say they have received more reports of corruption in the last three weeks than they received for the whole of last year -- thanks to text messages offering hefty rewards for tip-offs. "); Corruption prosecution a new high, People's Daily Online, July 10, 2008 (""We will intensify investigation of job-related crimes among leading government agencies and leading officials," Cao [Jianming, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate] said at a work conference. "We must resolutely deal with cases of bribery and corruption as well as dereliction of duty among officials, who usually collude with merchants in money-for-power deals and severely damage public interests," he added."); Tight rein demanded to fight corruption People's Daily Online July 9, 2008 (""Chinese procuratorates face the difficult challenge of strengthening their function of legal supervision and insuring consolidation of the Constitution and Law," Zhou [Yongkang, a Member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau] said. Corruption and miscarriages of justice are the problems most apparent to the public, he said."). These are all meant to drive home the point--corruption is a national problem that requires and has produced a significant national response, as does any sort of criminal activity.

In contrast, the BBC Report paints a different picture. It emphasizes the political consequences of the report and indulged in the sort of speculation that suggested not news but the political orientation of its editors. It starts with a suggestion of potential illegitimacy and of the direct connection between the report and the much larger issue of the legitimacy of the Chinese State apparatus under its political system. "Beijing authorities admit that fighting corruption is one of their key tasks. Chinese President Hu Jintao has repeatedly warned that endemic corruption threatens the Communist Party's grip on power." China Admits Mismanaged Funds, supra. It suggested that the report was "a glimpse of how widespread government corruption is in this vast nation." Id. It then reported details of the corruption that emphasized the use of the funds in a manner far more flavorful than the Chinese report that had omitted this information ("diverting public funds to speculate in stocks and using disaster relief money to build government offices" Id.), and indicated skepticism about the characterization of some of the mismanagement ("The report also found "managerial irregularities" in the use of another 41.7bn yuan ($6bn) of public money." Id.). This, of course, is fair game for Western media, which tends to adopt similar stances when reporting corruption in developed states. But the end of the report suggests that the BBC views Chinese corruption in a light different from Western corruption, and fair game for a larger project--that of fostering political change:
Despite admitting that tackling corruption is a top priority, China's rulers have a poor track record, correspondents say.Previous crackdowns have failed, and critics believe that without an enquiring free press and an independent judiciary, corruption in China will continue to spread. Id.
The agenda becomes clear--while Chinese functionaries expose corruption, Western media expose the venerability of the Chinese state to political change. A report about Chinese anti corruption efforts becomes another blow for political change in China grounded in the suppression of the Chinese Communist Party.

Indeed, this focus becomes clearer in the context of those related stories suggested by the BBC: Corruption 'threatens China rainforest' BBC News Online (21 Aug 2008) ("Farmers in the tropical region of Xishuangbanna in China's south-west Yunnan province recently staged a protest, accusing local officials of colluding with the rubber industry to destroy the local rainforest."); China fights misuse of quake funds, BBC News Online, 07 Jul 2008 (China has launched a massive campaign to ensure earthquake relief funds are not misused by local officials. Nearly 10,000 auditors have been dispatched to areas of Sichuan hit by the disaster in May, to guarantee money is spent on those who actually need it. . . . Chinese leaders say corruption is one of the country's biggest problems - and recently unveiled a five-year plan to fight it. Corruption is endemic in many areas of society - even doctors are bribed by patients desperate to ensure they receive the best treatment.); Top China boss removed from party, BBC News Online, 26 Jul 2007 ("The former Communist Party leader of Shanghai has been expelled from the party, state media reports. Chen Liangyu was . . . fired last year after a probe into the alleged misuse of the city's pension fund. Many other senior figures were also accused of involvement."); Shanghai officials hit by scandal, BBC News Online, 02 Mar 2007 ("Nine senior officials and business leaders have been reportedly expelled from China's Communist Party over a huge Shanghai corruption scandal. . . . Despite China's market reforms, Communist officials still have control over large parts of manufacturing, banking and real estate industries. Corruption is a widespread and growing problem, which Beijing is struggling to control, our correspondent says."); China steps up corruption fight, BBC News Online, 14 Feb 2007 ("China plans a new corruption agency after almost 100,000 party members were disciplined for misconduct last year. . . . The figure is down on 2005. But despite the fall, most people in China, including the party leadership, believe corruption is endemic and rising."); China finds pension fund abuse BBC News Online, 24 Nov 2006 ("China's National Audit Office says its investigations have found that as much as 7.1bn yuan ($900m) of pensioners' money has been misused. It said the money had been used in overseas investments, construction projects and unauthorised lending. . . . Any crisis in China's pension funds could have important political consequences."); Shanghai scandal 'implicates 50' , BBC News Online, 23 October 2006 ("More than 50 people have been detained in Shanghai's widening pension fund corruption scandal, a Beijing-funded Hong Kong newspaper has reported. . . . The corruption scandal demonstrates the problems facing those who wish to end graft in China, our correspondent says. The courts do not operate independently and almost all of those detained in Shanghai have not been seen or heard of since, he adds. There is little independent oversight. Auditors and corruption investigators are limited and the usual checks and balances that expose corruption - such as a free press and regular open elections - do not exist."). These related stories are all meant ot drive home a different point--corruption is threatening the integrity and legitimacy of a state whose very foundations might be corrupt because of the way its government is organized. Corruption here plays a very different tune.

Thus, the People's Daily Online and the BBC present two very different pictures of corruption and China. One assumes corruption as an internal problem of governance that requires reform and institutional effort within a structurally sound and legitimate system. The other suggests that corruption is so extensive and naturalized component of the political system within which it operates that it indicates the corruption of the system itself within which these acts arise. For corruption to be reformed, then, the foundations of the state apparatus will require revolutionary reordering as well. Thus, while the People's Daily slants its stories to prod greater institutional efforts at monitoring and suppressing corruption, the BBC News slants its coverage to prod change in the political system of China.

It does not follow, necessarily, that either the approach of the Chinese or that of the BBC ought to be mocked or condemned. But it does suggest the way in which an engagement with news provides opportunities well beyond reportage. This, of course, is not a new insight. It is, however, interesting to note in this particular case the way in which the passive aggression of news is exploited. Here, both the People's Daily and the BBC News services is an actor seeking to advance their political, social, economic and cultural agenda, or that of their masters. To that end, each is entitled to deploy all cultural, legal, social and economic levers at their disposal My point is to suggest that in that contest, nothing is ever as simple as it seems or as straightforward as it might be suggested. But the consequences can be perverse. Corruption, in this case, is already morphing from a notion of a set of bad behaviors among agents of economic, political, social and religious collectives, to a weapon in an ideological battle among those collectives for supremacy within their respective hierarchies of power and legitimacy. Corruption provides a good example of the subtle ways in which even the most noble of subjects can serve as vehicles for any number of other agendas. Nietzsche perhaps understood this well and said it much more compactly when he suggested:
End and Goal.--Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: as long as the melody has not reached its end, it also hasn't reached its goal. A parable.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 204, from The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880) reprinted in Seventy Five Aphorisms From Five Volumes 183 (Walter Kaufmann, ed., and trans. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989). And so it is with corruption in general and corruption in China in particular.

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