The myth of bad local officials, good central government

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

Indeed, it is about time to bury this myth. There are no local officials promoting Falun Gong or allowing free rein for the media- because these are issues that the central government cares deeply about stopping. Local officials are able to get away with corruption and abuse because the central government allows them to, and even arguably encourages it as a job perk.

October 6, 2012 @ 5:00 am | Comment

@ Richard. Grammatical quibble. Hogswash?

“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.”

Questionable. If not, Bo would have gone for a row of shithouses for some other reason. His US presidential style made many enemies.

October 6, 2012 @ 5:08 am | Comment

There are four layers to the Bo story. Richard, I’m thinking of doing a long guest post on the topic… would that work?

October 6, 2012 @ 6:00 am | Comment

First off, the central old and fat asses can’t proclaim themselves to be squeaky clean when they tolerate filth beneath them. The buck stops with them. If they want credit for some of the good that’s been accomplished, then they certainly need to own the crap as well.

Second, absolutely power corrupts absolutely. It’s inconceivable to even believe these top cheeses to be clean in a system such as China’s. Then you add on the overt displays of wealth where they guys are clearly living beyond their means (as are their kids), and you’d have to be wilfully blind to believe that “good central government” nonsense.

October 6, 2012 @ 6:05 am | Comment

KT, “hogwash” is correct. Google it.

T_co, I’m always looking for guest posters so send it to me when it’s ready.

October 6, 2012 @ 6:39 am | Comment

Agree with KT that it was likely not external pressure alone that brought about Bo’s fall. Likely the crime itself could have been pinned on Wang Lijun or some other patsy if the central government had been so inclined.

October 6, 2012 @ 7:01 am | Comment

Possibly, but with many pigs in the zhongnanhai pen, I would still vote for hogs (plural) wash.
FOARP. True. Isn’t that the function of underlings in the bureacracy?.

October 6, 2012 @ 8:28 am | Comment

Apol. To illustrate my trough/hogs pen point with a quote from Richard McGregor:

“Members of China’s National People’s Congress have become so wealthy that their meetings may best take place in a bank vault.”

October 6, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Comment

One slap was all it took to cashier in Mr Bo. His ego got the better of him that day.

Wonder what’s the total net worth of all the standing committee fellas and immediate family? Ever heard of a kid of a standing committee member with an unsuccessful business venture?

Too bad Jimmy Carter is American. If he were Chinese, his brother Billy would have been a billionaire!

October 6, 2012 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Hey, but as Deng said, some people have to get rich first…I guess now we know who he was referring to.

October 6, 2012 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

I agree with KT – #2. I’m not even convinced that Heywood was murdered.

Btw, your post doesn’t contain my favorite from that FT article, Richard:

One senior retired western diplomat who specialised in China for nearly 30 years recently confided to the FT that the Bo Xilai case had prompted an epiphany when he finally realised the top mandarins were just as tainted as officials at the lower levels.

After retirement. Think about it!

October 6, 2012 @ 3:47 pm | Comment

If there was any justice in this world, that particular diplomat would be returning his superannuation payout to consolidated revenue.

Here in tubbyland, nitwit politicians share the same and related delusions about the Chinese government, and this is despite sound advice from the various intelligence agencies.

October 6, 2012 @ 4:47 pm | Comment

A common sentiment I used to hear in China is that the mainland has no powerful mafia because the CCP occupies that spot. However, I’m beginning to think this may be giving them too much credit – the traditional mafia (and their Chinese counterparts the triads) is an organisation that respects tradition, and preserves a high degree of loyalty through the omerta. Instead, given the CCP’s apparent lack of any loyalty between members, tendency to go after anyone including women and children, etc., I’m beginning to think the CCP may be better compared to a guns, drugs n’ thugs G-Unit for whom C.R.E.A.M. is the only rule.

@JR – Yeah, the rest of us worked that one out a while back. There’s a tendency people have to believe that almost everyone in the PRC government is corrupt except “your” officials – the ones you see at AmCham mixers, cultural events, conferences, or work with as part of your NGO. Truth is they’re all about as corrupt as each other.

October 6, 2012 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

The German law stands between me and the Wu-Tang-Clan online, Foarp. Fortunately, there’s tudou.

October 6, 2012 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

Hehe, the idea that the CCP is needed to run China in a single-party system because only they can run the country – yet they can’t stop corruption because they’re so powerless.

Looks like a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. Either the CCP leadership shouldn’t get the credit for what happens in China, or they get the shit with the gold.

October 6, 2012 @ 6:12 pm | Comment

For many(if not most) people its rather difficult to give objective “criticism”, it far more easier to either “join in” the CCP propaganda machine by bragging about their “great accomplishments” or denounce them completely like: well they did something “BUT”……….endlessly preaching about how CCP brings doom upon china (and the world), they will surely fail this year/next year/decade/century and so on.

October 6, 2012 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Good cop/bad cop in play.

October 8, 2012 @ 4:22 pm | Comment

“Chinese legislators have amassed outsized assets, with the wealth of the richest 70 members of the National People’s Congress amounting to $90 billion last year, 12 times the combined wealth of the 660 top officials in the U.S. government, Bloomberg News reported Feb. 27.”

October 8, 2012 @ 5:38 pm | Comment

@KT – The unbelievable story of an official embezzling 2.8 BILLION US dollars now suddenly seems a lot more believable.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8674824/Chinese-rail-crash-scandal-official-steals-2.8-billion.html

October 8, 2012 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

FOARP @ Justrecently

Wu Tang clan! (And I thought I had lowbrow musical taste.) I gave up on FOARP ages ago (Oasis footie chants), but expected better from you, JR.

October 9, 2012 @ 3:57 am | Comment

Gordon Chang, Who Predicted Collapse by 2012, Wants Extension
Gordon Chang, who predicted China’s fall by 2011, expects it to fall this year.

President Harry Truman once remarked that he would prefer one-armed economists because they could not give him the on the one hand and on the
other hand rigmarole.

Truman would have undoubtedly admired China specialist Gordon G. Chang as a person willing to stick his neck out. The end of 2011 brought embarrassment
to Chang, who had predicted in 2001 that the Chinese communist regime would collapse within 10 years. It didn’t happen.

Give Chang some credit as he is back in Foreign Policy Magazine to ask for another year. He is certain that his prophecy will be borne out in 2012. This recalls the book by Andrei Amalrik entitled “Will the Soviet Union Survive to 1984?” The Soviet Union did survive 1984 and Amalrik himself but was gone less than 10 years from that date.

Chang argues that China prospered under a combination of conditions that are now in the process of evaporating.

Thanks to the reforms of Deng Xiao Ping, who guided China in the post-Mao era, China was open to foreign visitors and investments. Now this trend has reversed itself and China has created barriers by insisting on “indigenous innovation” and preferring national champions. Privatization is giving way to renationalization.

China benefited from the willingness of her economic partners to look the other way while China adopted a mercantilist party that discouraged imports and bolstered exports. Following the 2008 crash, those nations take a less benign view and want to export in order to maintain jobs and profits.

The depressed demand for Chinese products and trade friction will blunt China’s economic advance. China has tapped all the cheap labor that it couldmove from the countryside to the industrial plants and that advantage has exhausted itself.

Soon the one child policy that the regime imposed on the citizens will beginto take its toll on the workforce as that workforce grows progressively greyer. The Chinese economy will soon begin to contract.

The economic downturn comes at the same time as an upsurge in social unrest.The Communist Party has no answer to this unrest except for beefing up the police and troop presence and exercising severe censorship in all forms of the media.

To paraphrase Lenin, all that is needed for a general conflagration in China is a spark and “an incident can get out of control and spread fast. Because people across the country share the same thoughts, we should not be surprised they will act the same way.”

If the collapse he predicts does not materialize, Chang can always reappear next year and ask for another extension.

October 10, 2012 @ 7:37 am | Comment

Forgive me for asking, Mr. Clock, but is there a reason you didn’t attribute this article that you cut and pasted, and presented as a comment? Readers can see what I mean over here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/151326#.UHS4Ifl27C8

October 10, 2012 @ 7:52 am | Comment

Your filter will not allow urls

October 10, 2012 @ 8:10 am | Comment

Wrong. My filter will allow URLs but no more than 2. And that’s a bullshit reply. You could have said in your comment that you were citing someone, simply by saying “According to…” I really don’t like copy and pasters who don’t attribute. Really bad form. Don’t do it again.

October 10, 2012 @ 9:11 am | Comment

Richard argues that the notion of “good central government, bad local officials” is a myth. Clock responds by saying Gordon Chang has been wrong in his predictions about the Party’s demise. That is what we call a non-sequitur. Clock, if you want to refute Richard’s point, you need to provide some evidence as to why the “good central government, bad local officials” premise is true. Perhaps you dodge the question because there is simply no evidence to support this concept, aside from propaganda?

October 10, 2012 @ 11:13 am | Comment

The idea that Bo Xilai was an outlier is ludicrous. Bloomberg’s investigation into the enormous wealth (between US$400 million and US$ 1 billion) of Xi Jinping’s family should put that idea to rest. Who in China believes that the Party is sincere in its desire to stamp out corruption? This isn’t simply about well-intentioned bureaucrats – as an institution, the Party will fight the kinds of changes needed to reign in corruption. Indeed, it is the very nature of the system that begets corruption. Any serious attempt at fighting corruption would introduce the kinds of checks on power that the Party is fundamentally opposed to. All efforts to combat corruption will be ad hoc – equal parts propaganda, politics and law enforcement. This will not end well. Either the Party ends in catastrophic collapse, or it maintains its grip on power but ceases to govern well (I don’t mean to imply that the Party is governing well now). Either senario would be a catastrophe for Chinese society. Unfortunately, I don’t anticipate the Party turning things around. I see almost nothing to be positive about.

Gordon Chang’s biggest mistake was committing to a sell-by-date. If you read his book as a description of HOW the Party might collapse (as opposed to a prediction of WHEN it will collapse), it holds up much better. To be sure, it’s not a great book, but neither is it as bad as some suggest. I tend to agree with people like Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University who believe that the Party will hold on to power but fail to govern well – leading to increasingly widespread anomie, violence, protest, etc., etc. In fact, Prof. Sun this process is already well under way.

October 10, 2012 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

Off topic Richard, but better than The Clock’s unreferenced verbiage.

Tremendous stuff

lad in a blue plaid shirt and speaking with a rural accent, Miao Cuihua trips over her words as she demands unpaid wages, her “blood and sweat money” for toiling on a construction project.

Miao is certainly not the first migrant worker in China to complain about unpaid wages, but her act of protest has probably been seen by more of her fellow citizens than any other salary dispute in history.

Rather than going to her former employer’s office or lodging a petition with the government – the normal forms of protest in China – Miao took her appeal to the internet with a cleverly produced video that has gone viral and been reported widely by local media.

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/10/10/china-a-pay-dispute-goes-viral/

October 11, 2012 @ 4:35 am | Comment

Super-cool, KT — thanks for posting!

October 14, 2012 @ 11:04 am | Comment

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