Wang Debang: The Confidence of the Corrupt

Originally published late last year, this essay by writer and human rights activist Wang Debang on the futility of Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign has been making rounds on overseas Chinese websites.

Wang Debang: What Makes the Entrenched Corrupt Power Structure So Confident that They’re Going to Win?

A few days ago I ran into an old business acquaintance at a friend’s dinner party. He is now one of the top businessmen in the area, becoming a constant companion of local government officials in the process. Sitting at the table, his face flushed and his ears feverish, I remember being really shocked to hear him start ranting about why the whole anti- campaign wasn’t going to work.

The businessman said, “The anti-corruption campaign is a battle that cannot but end in defeat!” He gave the following reasons:

First, resources. Most of China’s resources are firmly in the hands of the same people who have been called corrupt. Even if you were the Jade Emperor or Lao Tzu himself, you wouldn’t be able to take these resources away or otherwise change the situation. You could even say that those anti-corruption crusaders are going to have to rely on the corrupt resource holders, otherwise they won’t be able to move things forward a single inch.

Second, troops. After decades of marketization, is it even possible to find a government official on the inside of the system with clean hands? And even if there are a couple, can you really depend on those few to change China? So it doesn’t matter who you dig up to staff your army, because it’s going to be almost impossible to expose all the innumerable threads of influence and money. In this kind of battalion, made up of these kinds of people, there’s no need to worry about getting totally cut off. If nothing else, you have to trust that nobody has ever been able to cut off their own head and grow a new one.

Third, theory. Our society still believes in the idea that “it’s hard to get power, and even harder to stay in power.” It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about second generation officials or second generation reds, and it doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum, because we all know one thing: China is a country of power blocs. Whether or not the anti-corruption crusaders really are acting like the internal affairs department for those power blocs, it has nothing to do with the common people, because power will never be shared with the common people.

Fourth, the winds of public opinion. Even though the common people hate the bigwigs, they also envy them. Society still sees powerful people as capable people, and becoming a powerful person is something one should pursue. So the regime of the powerful still has deep foundations in today’s society.

Given all this, China’s current anti-corruption campaign won’t be able to last long, nor will it be able to penetrate very deeply, nevermind change the system itself. It’s just a cosmetic measure that will never really get to the root of the problem. That’s why it doesn’t matter how intense the anti-corruption campaign gets, because it’s all temporary, like a gust of wind. Once it passes, everything will go back to the way it was before.

The only reason that the businessman was able to articulate such a grand theory was because he had spent so much time mixing with officials in Beijing and the provincial capital, and had often heard them discussing current affairs. So really, he was just expressing the point of view of all the government officials and public employees he knew.

Looking at the anti-corruption campaign today, it’s clear from a variety of indicators that the ranks of government officials are not nearly as frightened and flustered as they were when it first began. When government officials talk about who’s being investigated now, they don’t seem nearly as worried as they once did.

This all goes to show that the anti-corruption campaign has already lost its power to shock and awe government officials. They’ve all become numb to the storm of anti-corruption, or at least used to it. It proves that the storm of anti-corruption has started to lose strength and fail from within, under systemic pressure from without.

So now the ones who are filled with dread aren’t the corrupt. Instead, it’s the anti-corruption crusaders themselves. The corrupt power brokers can unite under a single banner of systemic power to guarantee that any policies which even hint at fundamental reform will never see the light of day.

First of all, no real, practical civil rights reforms are going to be implemented. Secondly, no unmuddied public figures from outside the system are going to be brought into it, or else they’ll be cast out into the cold, suppressed and sidelined. Third, to safeguard the nation against abrupt changes, idealists inside the power blocs will be prevented from indulging in wild fantasies and rushing into action half-cocked, and their policies and laws will reflect the will of the powers-that-be.

If they succeed in all of this, then the power brokers who consume influence and capital alike will continue to lead China. Even if a stormy anti-corruption campaign erupts every twenty-some years, it will only be to win over the hearts and minds of the people and save the day for the powers-that-be. Meanwhile, the system of government in China, representing the regime of influential power blocs, will remain unchanged and unshaken for a thousand autumns. [Chinese]

Translation by Nick.