China’s civil service tradition is thousands of years old. In ancient days, a civil-servant wannabe would be tested on his (sorry, no her) knowledge and understanding primarily of the Analects written by the legendary Confucius around 600 B.C. Long on general principles and short on specifics. Successful candidates were initially given small town or rural assignments and the emperor’s mandate was to extract taxes (remitted to the capital) and apply Confucius’ rules to the local population. It was possible, as reputations and revenues grew, for such a civil servant to rise through the ranks and perhaps even become a Prince of the Realm. Chinese law was supplemented by a more detailed set of criminal and civil laws – known as the Tang Code – in the mid-600s A.D., but bureaucratic discretion remained very much a part of the system.
The concept of a merit-based ruling bureaucracy is compelling, but there are flaws in the underlying tradition. A bureaucrat with loose guidelines (the writings of Confucius/the Tang Code and a taxation goal) and wide discretion is corruption waiting to happen. And so China’s history is one based on financial power influencing the scales of justice and privilege, perhaps more overtly than is found in the smoke-filled rooms of the American political scene. Chinese are masters of “plausible deniability” – the ability to create ambiguity in virtually any action or statement in order to explain away a decision that might someday find disfavor with those “bureaucrats with discretion” in power.
As Mao reinvented China in 1949, a “proletarian” semblance of the civil service endured, but the writings of Confucius were replaced with the “Little Red Book” of Mao’s doctrinaire interpretation of communism. Local cadres with loose guidelines and a goal of taxation still ruled at the local level. The notion of allowing bureaucrats wide discretion, and access to the blessings of those able to pay for them, is deeply embedded in Chinese tradition. Today, “corruption based on discretion” is the bane of China’s most senior leadership, who are wise enough to see the necessity of clear and modern statutes and regulations for those engaged in international commerce, but who also have to face the notion of discretionary entitlement seared into the psyches of the mass of empowered bureaucrats in the system.
For upwardly mobile contemporary Chinese, the key to plum jobs and a rosy future is the level of education they are able to achieve (entrance exams for the best schools mirror the test-taking barriers of ancient China’s civil service system). Here too, corruption raises its ugly head. As a student moves through the system, he/she carry with them (physically) an envelope filled with officially stamped documents registering his/her progress through the system. It is often the only record of their achievements.
The July 27th New York Times: “Everyone in China who has been to high school has such a file. The files are irreplaceable histories of achievement and failure, the starting point for potential employers, government officials and others judging an individual’s worth. Often keys to the future, they are locked tight in government, school or workplace cabinets to eliminate any chance they might vanish.” Unfortunately, often with local bureaucratic complicity, increasingly, these files are stolen and “sold” to those unable to achieve the relevant test scores and academic accomplishments on their own, leaving the victims with no proof of their past.
The Times presents an example of one student, one of several, whose documents were removed as the government moved his living quarters from one apartment to another: “‘If you don’t have it, just forget it!’ Wang Jindong, now 27, said of his file. ‘No matter how capable you are, they will not hire you. Their first reaction is that you are a crook.’… Perhaps no group here is more vilified and mistrusted than China’s local officials, who shoulder much of the blame for corruption within the Communist Party. The party constantly vows to rein them in; in October, President Hu Jintao said a clean party was ‘a matter of life and death.’” Stealing and selling school documents have become a virulent plague. A central system of recordation would help, but the underlying notion of corruption would still continue.
The Peoples Republic of China clearly wants this anomaly of corruption to die. Public arrests and executions of corrupt officials have not stemmed the tide of this common practice, and without an alternative party which can replace incumbents, a free press able to root out and point out local corruption or even a judicial system that allows citizens redress against the obvious problem, China seems to be battling in an unwinnable war. The drive to clean up China appears to be nothing more than a top-down directive – China’s most senior leaders (who are truly revered and respected by the masses) appear to have their hearts in the right place – that fails as the mandate dribbles down the chain of command.
China’s long-term growth literally rides on her leadership’s to deliver transparency and fairness to local governance, an exceptionally difficult objective given the historical evolution of a system of bureaucratic rules that is millennia old. But without this level of balance, the powerful Chinese economy may find itself hitting walls and limits that seem impossible given the PRC’s current level of achievement. It will be interesting to watch how China adapts to remedy this serious and widely, publicly known flaw in the system.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.