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.

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2 Responses to “Daniel Meissner on Corruption in China”


  1. 1 Stephen Leahy August 22, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Greeting from Hong Kong. I just thought that I would introduce myself. I am Stephen Leahy, Associate Professor of History, Shantou University, Shantou, China. I am also a MU Ph.D. In history, 1994.


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