Money in Politics, at Top and Bottom

Evan Osnos examines the role of bribery in elections for some of China’s more potentially lucrative local positions, and its implications for the health of these democratic experiments. From The New Yorker:

For Yang Kang—I’ve changed her name, for reasons that will be clear—this was only her second chance to cast a ballot in her hometown, a village rapidly being swallowed by sprawl on the edge of a metropolis. She would be voting for two offices: village chief and a delegate to the local assembly. She made a point of arriving a night early to avoid delays. She wasn’t taking any chances, not only because voting sounded thrilling, but also because it would be immensely profitable: “One candidate is giving away four thousand for each vote” she said, “and in the other race, the candidate is offering five thousand. Not bad.”

I’ve heard of vote-buying in local Chinese elections, but this is an impressive new standard: nine thousand yuan—that’s more than fourteen hundred dollars—is several months’ salary for many Chinese workers. “Last fall,” Yang went on, “when we elected the Party secretary, I got enough out of it to buy an iPad ….”

In any case, with so much of our own campaign up for sale this season, it seems like a poor moment for sanctimony. “Many people see rampant bribery as evidence that village elections don’t work or matter. And it definitely isn’t a good thing from the perspective of democracy. But actually elections must be working fairly well for candidates to see bribery—an expensive proposition—as necessary to win,” [the LSE’s Mayling] Birney told me. “If the elections didn’t matter or if it were easier to stuff the ballot or undermine the election in another way, no one would spend so much money on bribery to win them. The elections ensure that the developers and local officials have to share some of the wealth that they might otherwise just pocket themselves.”

The price of an iPad would be unlikely to sway China’s top legislators. Last month, the spotlight fell on surprisingly low nominal salaries awarded to Chinese officials such as Hu Jintao, whose $11,000 is dwarfed by the $400,000 Barack Obama received each year. Bloomberg shows the other side of the coin:

The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices.

The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.

The income gain by NPC members reflects the imbalances in economic growth in China, where per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and a fraction of the $37,527 in the U.S. The disparity points to the challenges that China’s new generation of leaders, to be named this year, faces in countering a rise in social unrest fueled by illegal land grabs and corruption.

“It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”

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