Archive for August, 2012

Daniel Meissner on Corruption in China

Daniel Meissner returns to Marquette after spending the winter, spring, and summer in China as a Fulbright Scholar.  Here he gives us some brief thoughts on everyday corruption in China.  He’ll soon give us a summary of his time in China.

One of the most frequent complaints by Chinese – including the official government news sources – is the pervasive corruption in politics and society. Corruption, of course, is not unique to China. Money buys influence in the US, and in Japan, and sometimes it does not seem possible to find an honest politician. However, the situation is a bit different in China. Corruption doesn’t just exist, it is a way of life. All of China runs in a “gray” area – where rules exist only to be bent or broken. Indeed, it seems as if rules or laws in China are widely interpreted as “suggestions” by most Chinese. Such as, “it’s strongly suggested that you drive in only one direction on a one way street, but if you really need to go the other way. . .” Or, “it’s strongly suggested that you not open the overhead bin as the plane is racing down the runway, but if you really need something. . .” Or, “it’s strongly suggested that you don’t boil old shoes to make medicine capsules, but if it saves money. . .”

Chinese frequently complain about high level corruption in China, but these same people operate daily in the “general compliance but not quite legal” gray area. The entrance exam (gao kao) determines which high school students will enter which university, and Chinese students sacrifice their after school hours and weekends (indeed, their youth!) to extra tutoring and classes. However, a well-placed “donation” can get a failed student admitted to just about any institution. A donation can also serve as insurance that a doctor will give his best efforts in surgery. Businessmen at all levels cook the books, reporting extra employees, less income, and more losses than is actually the case. Government officials are “thanked” for their efficient work with an appropriate donation.

Although outrageous infractions are occasionally prosecuted and lesser infractions bemoaned, the practice of using this gray system to one’s own benefit is so pervasive that serious attempts at comprehensive reform are nearly impossible. Those with enough income can bend rules to their advantage, so they have little incentive to campaign for change. Those whose limited income excludes them from the system, are often the ones most victimized by outrageous abuse. Without access to the gray network nor protection from an independent legal system, the poor are generally defenseless against the will and whims of exploitative officials, developers, and entrepreneurs. Consequently, in the face of blatant corruption, their only available option is mass protest to draw attention from higher government officials to their plight. These officials (who themselves operate within the gray area) may on occasion intervene to right an obviously intolerable wrong. Too often, however, it is in the government’s best interest to suppress even righteous complaints as a warning to others that mass protests in China are “unacceptable.”

In the West, democracy is often touted as the next step or future direction for change in China.  However, after hearing the concerns of Chinese from around the country about the broader effects of corruption – unsafe food and medicine, polluted air and water, hazardous construction, restricted opportunities, etc. – I have come to realize that legal reform is the most pressing area for socio-political development in China today. Without recourse to an impartial and independent legal system that guarantees protection of civil rights, Chinese society, business and government will continue to function – however arbitrarily – in the ambiguous gray zone defined by uncertainty, inequity and abuse. Corruption will continue to grease the wheels of development that eventually will crush the vitality and optimism driving China’s progress today.

Daniel Meissner (right) discussing rural conditions in a hill village in Guizhou province.

The Freedom Project at Marquette University, 2012-13

 Soon the Marquette community will embark on another academic year.  What makes this year particularly exciting is the history department’s Freedom Project.  See the following announcement by James Marten, Professor, Department Chair, and Director of the Freedom Project.

The History Department and many colleagues in other departments will spend the 2012-2013 academic year reflecting on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which began, of course, in 2011 and will continue through 2015. We’ve chosen to focus this year on Emancipation and the meanings Americans have applied to the concept of freedom from the sectional conflict through the present.  We’re calling our commemoration “The Freedom Project at Marquette University.”  Although the department will host a number of lectures, symposia, and other events, our friends in the Department of Performing Arts, the Haggerty Museum, the Raynor Memorial Library, the Law School, the Office of Student Development, and the English Department have also organized events and performances and exhibits that explore constructions of freedom over the years and across political, racial, and geographical divides. 

From lectures by Pulitzer-prize winning historians Eric Foner and Steven Hahn to the musical “Urinetown” and the drama “A Doll’s House,” from exhibits of contemporary photographers to a reading of banned books, from a talk on the Underground Railroad to a one-man show based African American spirituals, and from a symposium on domestic surveillance after the Second World War to what freedom meant at Marquette during the tumultuous 1960s, the purpose of the Freedom Project is less to provide a “history” of the Civil War or even of freedom than it is to make all of us think about what Freedom means to us. 

History Department-sponsored events kick off with the Klement Lecture on September 27, just a few days after the 150th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which began the long road to freedom for several million American slaves.  The speaker this year is Steve Hahn, Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, who will be speaking on “The Dimensions of Freedom: Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of the New American State”

There are many other events, and you can see the full calendar here.  You can also sign up to follow the Freedom Project on Twitter (http://twitter.com/FreedomAtMU) to receive periodic reminders of lectures, performances, and exhibits as well as historic nuggets from “This Week in Freedom.” 

The Freedom Project logo was designed by Nick Schroeder of MU’s Office of Marketing and Communication. The image featured on the logo was originally cast as an anti-slavery medallion by the English firm Wedgwood in 1787.  Eventually, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” appeared on cameos, bracelets, pins, and even pipes and snuffboxes.  The movements to end the slave trade and to abolish slavery later used the image in numerous books and broadsides.  The version used here appeared in an 1837 broadside of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Our Countrymen in Chains,” which highlighted the bitter irony of the existence of “SLAVES—crouching on the very plains, Where rolled the storm of Freedom’s war!” The illustration is one of the iconic images of the movement to abolish slavery.

All events are open to the general public; information for buying tickets to the Department of Performing Arts’ productions can be found at http://www.showclix.com/events/12806.  

Major funding for the Freedom Project History Department’s Klement and Casper Lecture Funds, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of the Provost, the Raynor Memorial Libraries, and Mellon Fund in the Way-Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.


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