One of the most fashionable arguments employed by apologists for the Chinese government is that yes, corruption thrives at the local level, but a concerned and squeaky-clean central government has little control over it, though it does all it can to contain it. This was a central argument made by some who argued the detention of Chen Guangcheng was the result of “a single local official” and the central government couldn’t be blamed for it. I wrote about one such pundit who made the “one local official” argument: “Think about that. The CCP can be off the hook for anything that doesn’t happen within walking distance of the Great Hall of the People.”
In the wake of the Bo Xilai catastrophe, the Financial Times today directly questions this argument about good central government, bad local officials, and concludes that it’s nonsense. Which, of course, it is.
From revelations of massive corruption to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Mr Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, the sordid affair has shown the Chinese people and the world that the rot goes right to the top.
For the last three decades, the party has carefully cultivated the perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.
China’s spectacular rise and its success in lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty combined with the intense secrecy surrounding senior officials have convinced many to accept this vision of a just and benevolent emperor calling the shots from Beijing….
When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.
Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.
This is an argument I’ve been making for years. No, the central government isn’t only corrupt. They have done some great things, initiated some wonderful programs, demonstrated solid and meaningful successes, and 80 percent of those polled in a 2008 Pew Research poll believe they are on the right track. However….
There is plenty of corruption to go around in China, and it is not confined to local officials. It’s those at the top whose kids drive Ferraris and who own homes in the US and who funnel large quantities of cash out of China. The Bo Xilai scandal simply makes it more obvious. It pulls the curtain on a topic the CCP wants to keep removed from public discourse and exposes the good/bad argument as total hogwash. The government never wanted the story to gain public attention; as the reporter says, “Chinese, British and US officials say privately that without the involvement of foreign governments Heywood’s murder would probably never have been uncovered and Mr Bo would still be a frontrunner for promotion when the party anoints new leaders at a once-a-decade conclave next month.” So don’t go arguing that the fact that we know so much about the scandal is due to transparency on the part of the powers that be. I agree with the article’s conclusion, that there are plenty of officials at the top who are no different than Bo Xilai when it comes to corruption and amassing illegal fortunes.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.