Recent reports from China suggest that social media has played a major part in bringing down a senior policymaker who had been abusing his position and indulging in fraudulent activities on a broad scale. So a victory for the people, by the people.
Let's be clear, it is no secret and neither should it be a surprise that China does not fare well on Transparency International’s annual list that ranks countries in order of merit. For the last three years it has hovered around the 75-80th position out of about 180 countries surveyed. Even though it was 80th in the last published survey, at least its score had improved. (Perhaps, given the relative “noise” they make about standards, more surprising to me is the position of the United States and the United Kingdom. At least in the 2012 report the USA managed to move into the teens out of its previous rankings in the 20s, and be adjudged marginally less corrupt than Chile for the first time!)
It is perhaps understandable, though not excusable, why China should find itself in this position on the corruption table. When you have suffered from the deprivations of a closed economy for decades, and that economy starts to open up, you discover a lifestyle existing in the world outside that you could not have imagined. In some ways you want to be a part of it especially if you are sent overseas and get used to a way of living, only to find that you are unable to reciprocate hospitality on offer – and when you return home, you discover that your newly acquired lifestyle is unsustainable and unaffordable. So you seek out the opportunities to maintain that life. That, inevitably, leads to corrupt practices - although clearly not everyone should be tarred with the same brush.
As part of China’s ongoing reform process, the Chinese leadership have made corruption one of their primary targets. This was evident as a serious move when they appointed the outspoken and aggressive Wang Qishan as the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wang was perhaps better known for his financial acumen (although he did a good job as Beijing Mayor) and would have been expected to take a post in that area after his election to the Standing Committee, but his no nonsense approach fits well with his current role. The fact that the measures being taken are having an effect can be evidenced by the food and beverage departments of China’s leading hotel groups, all of whom have taken a very substantial revenue hit in recent months as lavish entertaining by senior officials has been scaled back dramatically.
There is no doubt in my mind that a significant reduction in corruption can only benefit any country that gets it right - economically and socially.
So, while the tone from the top has been set and implemented it seems to be taking a much longer time to filter down to the lower ranks. I am being told by a number of different people I talk to from around China that corruption at party, municipal and village level has never been higher. These days you have to pay someone for every little thing – presumably to people who know that they have a limited time frame in which to create some wealth for themselves. But while corruption at the top is usually counted in large sums, paid by large companies with deep pockets – the payments made at the village level are by people who already have little, and can afford it less. But with the increase in revelations by social media networks, such as that experienced by Liu Tienan, it is likely to all end in tears – eventually. Nowhere to hide!!
With the focus on the example being shown by the Leadership, perhaps it would be as well to bear in mind the paraphrase of an old English proverb that says “take care of the pence and the pounds will look after themselves”. In other words, deal with the easy and small things first – corruption at the more widespread lower levels - and the bigger levels of corruption will be dealt with over time as a matter of course.
And note, one can only talk about “curbing” corruption – eradication is not possible, as the Transparency International rankings will tell you. Developed countries have developed less detectable but nevertheless effective means of corruption – so it will never go completely.
It was Chinese philosopher Laozi (604bc – 531bc) who wrote “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. If China is going to succeed in curbing corruption, then at least the single step has been taken.