The Latin etymology of the word means “to break apart,” which, of course, aptly describes the process of an entity losing its integrity, like the putrefaction of an organic body. But, over time, everything, organic and inorganic, becomes corrupted; nihil aeternam est.
But, everything in its time. That’s the key question. When is it appropriate—if that’s an appropriate word, for things to corrupt, because the very question implies that there is a period of time during which things should retain their integrity. I partly addressed this matter earlier in assessing the question of whether systems corrupt people, or people corrupt systems.
Social corruption raises some different questions as to inevitability.
Let me put some meat on these bones. In 2001 I was giving some lectures on American public administration at Chinese universities in Beijing.
My lecture was followed by a luncheon that I was not sure was in my honor, or I was just a Chinese excuse to have a luncheon. I felt a little out of the loop of what this whole enterprise was about, like I was being “handled.” But I was in China, I was enjoying meeting the students and giving lectures, the food was good. But the suspicion that there was another agenda lingered.
The luncheon only contributed to that suspicion. It was in the typical large, noisy restaurant with huge round tables with “Lazy Susans.” Mr. Wen, my handler, was there, but there were no students; only men who looked like officials, a couple of whom I recognized from their standing at the back of the lecture hall. Mr. Wen steered me to a seat next to a husky man in his fifties whose close-cropped salt and pepper hair and ruddy complexion gave him a military bearing. He turned out to be quite affable, with quite good English. I’ll call him Mr. Xu.
Mr. Xu complimented me on my lecture. He was, he said as he offered his calling card in the customary manner, a government official charged with improving municipal administrative practices, especially as regards physical infrastructure. He said he was particularly interested in my remarks in an illustration I gave regarding the adage sometimes voiced by officials in the U.S. that “there is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street.” My reference was to what I regarded as a false notion of the separation of administration and politics and I had recounted the story of when I worked as a city planner in an upstate New York city that had a Republican administration in power. My point of illustration in the lecture was that it was a city that received heavy snowfalls often making streets impassable for vehicles, but when the snowplows went out they were always first sent to the wards that had voted heavily Republican in the last election.
“That sounds almost like political corruption,” Mr. Xu said while refilling my teacup for the third time.
“Favoritism, the spoils of electoral victory, we like to say,” I replied. “It’s the nature of politics, whatever you call the system.” But I was sure that Mr. Xu knew that already. I was curious why he had come to my lecture, and I asked him directly.
Mr. Xu’s response surprised me. Mao Zedong, he told me, distrusted university-educated professionals. He put party members, cadre (ganbu), he could control, often people from the countryside who knew next to nothing about how to administer cities, in charge of urban areas. They made many mistakes, and were subject to corruption and, being from rural areas, appointed family and clan members who also were not qualified for their jobs and perpetuated administrative incompetence. Mr Xu never said it explicitly, but I concluded that he felt the time was overdue for some needed professionalism in Chinese urban administration. But the Party had decades to entrench itself, corruption was rife and old practices such as the hukou(or residency permit) and the danwei(work unit systems) might be difficult to reconcile with more modern approaches to administration.
Could this be the reason the Chinese were interested in American PA? I even wondered if Mr. Xu might have been the person behind approaching California State University system about my giving lectures? Things were almost never direct in China. I tried teasing things out by saying that he must have found my Jeep metaphor remarks at Tsinghua “disappointing.”
But Mr. Xu seemed unconcerned. A disciple of Deng Xiaoping’s facility with fashioning Western ideas the mere utterance of what once could get you tossed in a political re-education prison, and denounced or worse during the Cultural Revolution, now was a rhetorical switcheroo wrapped in something called “Asian values.” “A planned economy does not equal socialism, because planning exists in capitalism, and a market economy does not necessarily equal capitalism because the market exists in socialism,” Deng had once asserted.* Taking a page from my book Mr. Xu simply said, “We might not require, or want, the entire Jeep, but some parts of it might fit the vehicle we must build.” It was candor, Chinese style.
As we were waiting for the driver to bring the car around I was admiring a wooden panel near the front door of the restaurant. It had many reliefs of the Chinese character for “Dragon,” long, one of the characters I happened to recognize since I was born in the year of the Dragon. The panel was sort of a paleography of the character, progressing from the ancient to the present. I noticed that Mr. Xu had come up beside me and I thought he might be about to remark on the panel. “Did they pay you?” he asked, exhaling cigarette smoke through a half-smile.
“Pay me . . . who?” I had no idea what he was asking about.
“The city with the nude dancing place.” He was referring to a study I had made as a consultant of zoning laws in the US related to the location of “adult” or X-rated land uses. “You were not able to achieve your client’s objective. They should not have to pay you.”
“That’s not how it works in the States,” I answered, “Yes, I was paid.” Perhaps he was implying that I must have lost ”face” as well. Or perhaps he was obliquely implying that I still needed to deliver what the Chinese expecting from me on American PA. “The city received the truth; I clarified the law for them. That’s the way we do it.”
“It means Dragon,” he said, pointing to the most ancient version of the character with his cigarette, and walked off.
I would’ve liked to extend my conversation about corruption with Mr. Xu, but he disappeared into the 1.3 billion Chinese population that has had 5000 years to make its accommodations with social corruption. At least he clarified for me the fact that 1949 had given China a brand-new the political system, but it had not made a damned bit of difference with corruption, and it did not appear that its newfound accommodation with market capitalism would either. Still, Chinese leaders like Xi jinping, like to conduct crusades against corruption in the nation, usually as a pretext for clearing away political opposition. The fact is that the system is pretty much rotten from Xi to the bottom. For a poignant description of how this is insidious for the people on the lowest wrongs of the social ladder I recommend reading the aptly titled Will The Boat Sink the Water?**
What the hell, even I, who had come over here to deliver several lectures on American public administration which I knew damn well was a square peg that would not fit in the round hole of a one-party political system, was playing my part in the ideological charade. And I was getting paid, and fed for it, too.
©2019, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.3.2019)
*From Orville Schell, Mandate of Heaven(1995) p. 345
**Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (2007)