Can China eliminate inveterate corruption after so many centuries?

6 min read
China’s top graft-buster Wang Qishan

Zhao Kuangying (927-976), the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) , ordered all the succeeding emperors to promise by oath to respect intellectuals.

As a result, Song emperors themselves received good education and were fond of intellectuals. However, they went too far and put academic and artistic achievements above moral integrity.

There are the following well-known lines in a poem by Emperor Zhenzong of Song (968-1020) to persuade people to study hard:

There is a gold house in books,
There are women as beautiful as jade in books.

The first line is mostly translated into something similar to “there is wealth in books,” due to ignorance of the meaning of the term “gold house”. As a result, it became a line to persuade people to study hard for wealth.

In fact, the poem follows the Chinese poetic tradition of using old stories and classic passages in poems. “Gold house” refers to the story in Chinese history of Emperor Wudi of Han (157BC-87BC), who loved his cousin Ah Jiao so much that he said he would build a gold house as Ah Jiao’s residence if he was able to get her as his wife.

The line means that if one studies hard and becomes well-educated, one will be able to get the girl he loves and help her have a good life.

However, as that story cannot be found in official history, though it was much mentioned in literature, those who are not familiar with the story regard the “gold house” as wealth.

The pursuit of wealth gradually grew into the following popular formula for intellectuals:

Study to pass the civil service examination;
Obtain official post to get power;
Use power to become rich.

How? Through corruption.

It corrupted Chinese intellectuals and gradually made corruption a tradition in Chinese official circles.

That is why I point out in my book Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements that China declined due to degeneration of its intellectuals. It was the reason why the Song Dynasty was conquered by Mongolians. Corruption was even more serious in later dynasties. I describe it in the following passages in my book:

Corruption rose to the zenith in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and caused peasants’ uprisings all over the nation. Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was one of the leaders of the uprisings. He lived among the poor when he was young and hated corruption bitterly.

During his reign, due to his hatred, he killed many corrupt officials including some of his close advisers who had helped him defeat other uprising leaders and establish his dynasty. He was frustrated that it just seemed impossible to eliminate corruption in spite of his extensive killings.

Throughout his dynasty, corruption remained a serious problem.

The situation was no better in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-1795) was regarded as quite a prosperous period in Chinese history. However, Qianlong’s close courtier He Shen accumulated an enormous fortune of 900 million catties (a catty is a little heavier than an ounce) of silver by various corrupt means. That was an unprecedented amount of wealth because at that time, there were usually 20 million catties of silver in the emperor’s exchequer.

The three emperors Jiaqing, Daoguang and Xianfeng  (ruling China from 1796 to 1861) after Qianlong were not stupid. On the contrary, their IQs were not low and they were well-educated. They knew well the problem of corruption and tried quite a few ways to deal with the problem.

However, in spite of their hard efforts and severe punishment of corruption when found, corruption remained rampant. Some people look down on their ability of governance due to their failure in resisting foreign invasions. That was because of their conservatism and ignorance of the world situation. They did not understand that China lagged far behind the outside world and had to make great efforts to catch up.

Their reigns would not have been so poor if there had not been foreign aggression.

Under the rule of later autocrats, corruption was even worse until the Communist takeover. At the beginning, Mao’s campaign against corruption was quite successful, and corruption seemed to have been eliminated. That was because at that time the communist officials had not forgotten the ideal for a better China when they joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Mao’s power struggle used class struggle as an excuse to persecute not only his enemies but also victims who were not even interested in politics. It turned the entire China into a game ground for power and caused most people to be corrupted by power. Abuse of power for personal gain was a natural result. That is why I describe in my book that corruption was Mao’s legacy instead the alleged spiritual pollution from the West after China opened to the outside world.

Now corruption is so rampant that only an exceptionally wise and capable leader can eliminate it. Xi Jinping is strong enough to deal with it, but he has to have a capable assistant. Wang Qishan is a rare talented assistant, but he will retire in late 2017.

He certainly fears that there is no competent official to carry on his fight; therefore, he is quoted by Reuters as saying, “This is just the beginning” and “consistency, intensified supervision, discipline and accountability” are required.

On Oct. 24, China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying that the campaign for clean government “will never be concluded.”

The following is the full text of Reuters report:

China’s top graft-buster says fight will never end

China’s fight against deeply ingrained corruption will never end, the top official in charge of tackling graft said before a meeting intended to clean up business in the world’s second-largest economy.

Since President Xi Jinping launched his high-profile campaign against corruption upon assuming office last year, senior officials including powerful former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang have been removed from their posts and put under investigation.

“All these efforts have gained the support of the general public,” said Wang Qishan, who heads the ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

“This is just the beginning,” he said, adding that the party’s anti-graft campaign requires “consistency, intensified supervision, discipline and accountability”.

The campaign for clean government “will never be concluded”, Wang was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency late on Friday.

Wang made the comments while talking with overseas members of the advisory board of the School of Economics and Management at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, Xinhua said.

“A clean government and a healthy and fair market offers the best soft environment for investment,” it paraphrased Wang as saying.

At the graft watchdog’s annual plenum held on Saturday, Wang said that party members, especially those in leadership roles, need to abide by the rules and put into action the party’s discipline because the anti-corruption drive is tough and complicated.

“The fight against corruption and the construction of a clean government is still ongoing,” a statement posted on the watchdog’s website quoted Wang as saying.

The party’s own plenum ended this week with vague promises to boost the rule of law, but made no mention of the disgraced Zhou Yangkang.

The party announced in July that it had launched a corruption investigation into Zhou, following months of speculation about his fate, making him the highest-profile victim yet of Xi’s war on graft.Source: Reuters “China’s top graft-buster says fight will never end”

Tony Simon

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