By Ravi S. Narasimhan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-03-11 07:47
The writing's on online: Corruption is a major concern for the Chinese.
A survey conducted by Xinhua on the eve of the annual sessions of the top legislative and advisory bodies ranks "fighting corruption" as the top priority for respondents. Similar exercises by leading websites showed similar result.
Premier Wen Jiabao himself, in his address to the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress last week, admitted "corruption remains a serious problem".
Having lived in countries and regions where corruption ranges from virtually nil to all-pervasive, I have a fair idea of the phenomenon and its consequences.
But most Chinese I have spoken to, including my colleagues, have had few first-hand brushes with corruption. Research shows the majority of corruption involves infrastructure projects and land transactions, not the kind that affect the common man - unless, of course, his land is involved.
In China, there is hardly any of the street-level corruption seen in many developing countries or in those with comparable economies to China. You can't buy fake driving licenses, passports or hukou papers, nor can you bribe a traffic cop after he catches you speeding.
So what is the source of discontent? It seems there is, among the Chinese, an innate dislike and distrust of what is seen as breaking the egalitarian social contract they have been brought up on.
The market economy has become so entrenched no one questions it, while most nonchalantly accept associated excesses.
There was no outrage last year when one man spent a cool 888,888 yuan ($130,000) on a Valentine's Day dinner for two (admittedly, it included diamonds and the use of a presidential suite). Of course, that was before the current economic crisis.
It is all right for tycoons to flaunt their wealth, and their mistresses, even if their fortunes were not all made by sticking to the straight and narrow. But any slight deviation by an official is seen as veering away from Communist ideals and the mores of public service.
If there is such a discrepancy between public expectation and public perception, it is for the Party and the government to sort out - but this is not to say that corruption does not exist.
The drug and food scares of recent years when the government was seen to act decisively - from the execution of the former head of the Food and Drug Administration to the quick prosecution of people involved in the tainted milk scandal - have been reassuring to an extent, though food and drug safety also figure prominently among people's concerns.
The proposal to create a powerful food safety commission, possibly headed by an official of vice-premier rank, has certainly brought great solace - and hope - and a great deal of media coverage, in China and around the world.
But nothing much has been heard of the endeavors of the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention since it was set up in 2007, either in domestic or overseas media.
Maybe an umbrella organization to tackle corruption both in the government and the Party, headed by an official at an extremely high level, would help attract wide media coverage and go a long way toward fixing the problem.
And the Internet must play a bigger role.
As the deputy procurator general said yesterday, Net supervision has become an effective way to expose corruption and increase transparency, and should be encouraged.
Ravi S. Narasimhan is editor-at-large of China Daily