Corruption: The Goldilocks Argument

The subject of corruption and its place in Chinese culture and society has been the focus of vigorous debate. Wen Jiabao stated in March that corruption poses the “most crucial threat” to Party rule; Murong Xuecun argued recently that it is so pervasive in China that “no roads are straight here”; and in what one netizen called “a hard slap on Chinese people’s faces”, an Iowa county attorney dismissed a Chinese couple’s alleged attempts at witness tampering as a “cultural difference”. Last week, Global Times stoked the fire with an editorial entitled ‘Fighting Corruption is a Crucial Battle for Chinese Society‘.

Several other outlets, including QQ.com, republished the article under a title which some felt better conveyed its argument: ‘China Must Permit Some Corruption, the Public Should Understand’ (both headline translations from China Media Project). Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin disagreed, and demanded—and received—an apology. An abridged translation appeared on the newspaper’s English-language site under a third heading, ‘Public should have realistic view of anti-graft drive‘, whose tone fell somewhere between the others.

Corruption is obviously thriving in China with limited resources to curb it. Some assume it can be rooted out if a democratic system is adopted. This is naïve thinking.

[…] Public supervision needs to be enforced, so that it can drive the government’s determination in its anti-corruption campaign. But the public should also be objective and realistic. They need to understand the reality that corruption cannot be completely banished from China at this time, rather than suffer in the pursuit of an unrealistic goal.

[…] Corruption derives from officials’ own misbehavior and the flaws in our system. But they are not the only causes. Corruption is also a result of our current level of development.

David Bandurski posted a full translation of the Chinese original at China Media Project.

Appeals to “our current level of development” are common regarding issues as diverse as human rights and environmental degradation. As Helen Gao wrote at The Atlantic, however, many observers found the Global Times’ argument deeply unconvincing:

… [The] editorial has drawn disbelief, ridicule, and satire on social media here. The editorial is surprising not for acknowledging that corruption is a widespread problem but for telling readers that they should resign themselves to accepting that “proper level” of corruption. In appearing to diverge from the official line that the Communist Party is committed to fighting corruption in all its forms, and suggesting that it is even willing to accept some corruption, the editorial has unwittingly reinforced many peoples’ worst beliefs about their government and its true intentions.

[…] “Yes, we should also understand a proper number of high-speed rail crashes, a proper level of poison in milk, a proper amount of leather in food, a proper use of torture in extracting testimonies, a proper sum of compensation for forced eviction and demolition, a proper reduction in reported embezzled money, a proper degree of lies in news, proper distortion of truth, proper screening of public opinions, proper social regression, and proper loss of civilization…” vented Xu Xin, a prominent Chinese legal scholar.

Zhaobudaoedeganjue summed up the public reaction on Weibo with one line: “You can be properly corrupt, so can I properly protest!”

China Media Project followed up its translation with a scathing response by program fellow Yang Hengjun, originally posted in Chinese on his blog:

On the Global Times take on the issue of corruption, response to Web user 1: It is all true to say [as the Global Times editorial does] that, to varying degrees, all countries in the world have corruption, that in China it is relatively serious, and that at present there is no way to utterly root it out. Some web users believe that the Global Times … has spoken the truth, that it is like the courageous child pointing out that the emperor’s news clothes [are a fraud]. But this isn’t where the problem lies. The problem lies in the conclusion the paper comes to after it has pointed out that the emperor is wearing no clothes — that the naked emperor is pleasing to look upon. They have broken through the floor of universal human values.

On the Global Times take on the issue of corruption, response to Web user 2: Some official media go even faster and farther than the authorities in challenging universal values, as though they are testing the intelligence and patience of the people. Monopoly media that go unchecked are not an outgrowth of freedom of speech, but rather brainwashing propaganda, a hotbed of fascism. If we do not refute them, they will someday reach the following conclusion — that in fact rape exists in all countries, that it cannot be utterly eliminated, and therefore a moderate level of rape is reasonable, something that women who are raped should understand and accept.

At The Diplomat, Mu Chunshan paired the row over the editorial’s headline with another recent media controversy as illustrations of ideological debate in the run up to this year’s leadership transition:

Recently, the official Beijing Daily ran a commentary arguing that issues such as social instability and food insecurity were being exaggerated by the media, risking public panic. The paper added that the media had forgotten the values of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Guangdong-based Time Weekly interviewed a number of analysts who lashed out at the commentary, arguing that reporting the truth is the media’s responsibility. Soon after, though, the president of Time Weekly reportedly headed to Beijing to apologize, adding that the outlet would deal strictly with the journalists involved in producing the story.

[…] If nothing else, the two incidents have offered the people the chance to better appreciate the importance of the media in helping understand society. And despite their apologies and backtracking, Time Weekly and QQ have done a very good job not only of drawing attention to some important issues, but also of shining a light on the progress (and otherwise) of the Chinese media landscape.