China’s 18th Communist Party congress has included all the predictable ingredients: bans on such improbable threats to social order as pigeons and open taxi windows, a blockage of Google, stunningly boring and vacuous speeches, and Tibetans burning themselves to death. Least surprising of all, and the curtain raiser to the gathering last week, was President Hu Jintao’s clear warning that corruption could lead to the fall of the one-party regime. It sounded like a gloves-off, no-more-kidding-around declaration of resolve to really get to grips with graft. So, of course, did all the previous such warnings.
The conventional view is that China’s political structure is almost designed to create corruption. It is a top-down Leninist system, with no checks and balances, no separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers and no oversight from independent courts or media. Add selective economic reform, with bigger and bigger amounts of wealth up for grabs, and the rise of political/business family dynasties, and you end up with a kleptocracy in which the best connected and most powerful can help themselves to as much as they can.
We usually assume that the political structure creates the corruption. But could it be the other way round? Could it be that it is corruption that is the cause of the structure? One of the other predictable events of the congress was the usual announcement that multi-party democracy and separation of powers were un-Chinese and out of the question. This is tantamount to a refusal to change the current system, and therefore essentially a promise that corruption must and will continue. Atlantic quotes a Mainland social scientist as saying that:
…in the name of “stability” the party has “suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed the rule of law, suppressed reform,” but it has “not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures.”
The suppression can be seen as a means to enable the corruption. It is to serve the needs of the Wen family, the Xi family, the Bo family (once) and their counterparts in state-owned industries and the People’s Liberation Army. These are the people who have created this system – and outsiders are expecting them to change it?
It sounds unlikely. But in the upper reaches of the military, at least one ultra-paranoid thinks they might want to, and is determined to make sure they won’t. Australian journalist John Garnaut (of the excellent Is China Becoming a Mafia State? presentation) has received notes of a speech given by a leading PLA general warning of parallels between the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the possible fate awaiting China’s ruling class. The officer drew on earlier work on a Western conspiracy to lure China’s up-and-coming princelings studying in the US and elsewhere into accepting dangerous Barbarian ideas about freedom and democracy as ‘universal’ values. The Westerners brainwashed Gaddafi’s son Saif this way, and now they have toppled tyrants in the Arab Spring it’s obviously China’s turn.
In short, people who advocate political reform (and economic, legal and other liberalization) are part of a Western plot to overthrow the regime, and Ferrari-driving princelings returning from Harvard to join the power structure are especially suspect. It is an amazing contradiction. Some figures who (like the PLA commissar) are truest to Marxist or Maoist ‘red’ ideals, and who are most worried about vice and fraud, are fearful that the next generation of people with a material interest in keeping the corrupt system will nonetheless want to change it. The clean-handed idealists want, in effect, to keep the corruption, while the corrupt want to end it. It is paranoia squared. It does not exactly bode well for a decline in graft either as an unfortunate by-product or raison d’etre of one-party rule.
This also gives us an insight into the constant warnings about foreign interference, even in little old Hong Kong and, incredibly, Macau. When Chinese leaders mention hostile foreign forces they are not simply looking for a scapegoat for anti-government sentiment. Nor are they necessarily thinking of specific agencies like the CIA, Taiwan or Neil Haywood. It is the very ideas and concepts of democracy and human rights and rule of law, that are seeping into the country and are foreign and hostile. Paranoia is to these guys’ minds what black dye is to their hair.