Corruption makes everyone mad, not just righteous Confucians but also detached Daoists.
In my home state of Massachusetts, a massive highway project, the "Big Dig," costing billions of dollars, has failed tragically. The concrete roof of a new tunnel in Boston fell on a car and killed a woman. It seems that, besides watering down the cement in an effort to divert money to private accounts, contractors chose an inferior support system, one that allowed them higher profits at the expense of safety.
People here are outraged. They do not expect such things to happen in America. But such things do happen, in America, in China, all over the world. Some places may be better at controlling corruption than others. However, when large sums of money are at stake, selfish individuals find ways to cheat and thieve.
The ancients also agonised over corruption.
Daoist texts often seem aloof from ethical judgment. Human understandings of right and wrong appear to matter little in the cosmic movements of Way. Instead of imposing our human-created moral standards on nature, Daoists tell us to accept the inevitable changes of ziran: "occurrence appearing of itself," as one translator puts it.
But on the question of government corruption, the Tao Te Ching strikes a critical tone, as in this excerpt from passage 53:
"The Great Way is open and smooth, but people adore twisty paths: Government in ruins, fields overgrown and granaries bare, they indulge in elegant robes and sharp swords, lavish food and drink, and all those trappings of luxury. It's vainglorious thievery not the Way, not the Way at all."
Other translations refer to the problem as "highway robbery," but the emotion is the same. I sense a palpable anger here.
On the one hand, the text suggests that corruption is embedded in human nature: "people adore twisty paths." The temptations of luxury might draw any of us toward venality. Yet, at the same time, the passage says that it is not natural; it violates the inherent tendencies of the Way. The greed that motivates corruption is "not the Way."
Mencius, as might be expected in light of his principled demand for good government, also takes a dim view of corruption. He is especially critical of those who tolerate rural poverty while they themselves indulge in luxury. Always willing to speak truth to power, he says directly to Emperor Hui of Liang: "There's plenty of juicy meat in your kitchen and plenty of well-fed horses in your stable but the people here look hungry and in the countryside they're starving to death. You're feeding humans to animals "
What a powerful image: feeding humans to animals. It is repeated later in the text. The Emperor was not actually engaging in such a barbaric act. But, Mencius is saying the effect of his greed is of a similar immorality.
And so is the corruption of Boston's "Big Dig," or any such fraud anywhere. The people responsible for the design and construction of the tunnel have, in effect, buried a person alive. The State of Massachusetts is currently investigating charges of negligent homicide. Let's hope they find the culprits, who could be guilty not only of "vainglorious thievery" but also vainglorious murder.
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Sam Crane teaches Chinese philosophy and politics at Williams College in Massachusetts, the United States, and is the author of Aidan's Way.
(China Daily 08/03/2006 page15)