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To stop corruption you first need to swat flies

Updated: 2014-02-21 08:31
By Bai Ping ( China Daily Africa)

Graft in China is as insidious as a quiet deal on the side to save money on parking

Ask any experienced driver in Beijing about the ways to save on parking fees, which have gone up several times in the past few years, and he or she will teach you how to negotiate the rates with parking fee collectors, giving an insight into one of the crudest and most common forms of corruption in our daily life.

Every day, in the roadside car parks in my downtown neighborhood, drivers haggle with fee collectors despite official rates being displayed on the notice boards overhead. Most times they strike a win-win deal, as drivers pay less by forfeiting receipts, which allows the collectors to pocket the money.

The city's parking sector usually employs migrant workers, including many from rural areas, because urban residents shun the low-paying, menial and stressful job. Higher up in the chain of corruption that cashes in on the Chinese passion for owning a set of wheels are people with connections who help drivers cheat the system by providing services such as fixing penalty points or obtaining a coveted license plate without taking part in a public lottery, which, like higher parking fees, has been instituted to curb traffic jams and pollution.

Unfortunately, such petty acts of corruption by people lower down the graft chain, better known as flies in the Chinese anti-corruption jargon, are not limited to vehicles and parking. Schools, hospitals, government offices and even private sector outlets are riddled with abuse of power by low- to middle-level staff, which has thrived wherever there is a lack of or inadequate monitoring.

Such acts also hurt the cause of the anti-corruption campaign for clean government. Despite high-profile crackdowns that have brought down quite a few tigers, or high-ranking officials embroiled in bribery or embezzlement involving large sums of money, the Chinese media have reported a generally nonchalant response from ordinary people because it is the many flies that they have to deal with every day and most of whom remain unscathed. The sentiment is best summarized by a widely circulated aphorism that says "the big tigers are far away, but flies are in our faces every day".

Political observers have noted that the fall of a corrupt vice-governor or minister may often become a topic of discussion at dinner tables, but powerful messages will be relayed only when flies are also swatted with them.

But the fact is that while it takes tremendous political will on the part of the government to ensnare the tigers, the campaign to swat the flies can also be a tough mission because of their pervasiveness. 

Although incessant ideological indoctrination and self-reflection have long been an important anti-corruption strategy in China, empirical experience shows that the education approach has had limited effect, because greed and self-centeredness, when uncurbed, can push both the big and small guys off the cliff.

So hopes are high for an effective punitive and preventive system to be set up at all levels to ensure that people do not dare to, are not able to and cannot easily be involved in corruption. Higher pay and better welfare may deter the flies from corruption, because that would enable them to survive without having to seek money through illegal means. Besides, a more liberalized economy and less government control should help reduce the opportunities for corruption.

But the strongest cure remains in nurturing a public opinion that condemns the corrupt flies as well as tigers, instead of accepting corruption as a way of life that encourages people to become willing or unwilling partners.

In a public campaign for more blue-sky days before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, residents were encouraged to report their neighbors for causing pollution, with informants offered cash rewards of up to tens of thousands of yuan for reporting vehicles or smokestacks that spewed black smoke.

Perhaps this could be the direction of the future campaign against the flies.

The author is editor-at-large of China Daily. Contact the writer at