Getting at the root of corruption
( 2003-08-06 10:42) (China Daily HK Edition)
Cases of corruption at various levels of government continue to occur in China -while some advocate improving civil servants' pays, not everyone is convinced.
While driving down Airport Boulevard in Guangzhou, Wang Xinyan should have taken a detour at one point, following the rest of the traffic. Instead, he pressed on the gas pedal and sped into the special direct lane reserved for buses.
"What would have happened if you had offered a 'gift' of 50 yuan (US$6) to the cop? Wouldn't that have saved you a little money and a lot of trouble," asked this reporter, who was riding along with Wang.
"He would not accept it. If he had, and I reported the incident to his employer, he would lose his job, which probably pays 5,000-7,000 yuan (US$604-846) a month. And it wouldn't be easy for this guy to get another job that pays so well," explained Wang.
In the days when police officers earned monthly salaries of about 1,000 yuan (US$121), and they were supposed to collect the penalty in cash on the spot, Wang would not have hesitated to slip him a few notes in lieu of the higher fine.
In spite of this improvement, corruption continues to gnaw at China's social fabric. It is so rampant, according to public perception, that even "high-profile" cases fail to raise eyebrows anymore. Efforts to curb it have met with limited success as incidents involving ever-larger sums of money keep surfacing. It is time, many agree, to examine the fundamental issues and come up with ways to get at the root of the problem.
Many in Chinese mainland consider the anti-corruption measures implemented by the Hong Kong SAR and Singapore governments suitable models because the cultures of those two places are similar to that of China.
A major component of this model is high salaries for civil servants, the logic being that when those in government services are paid low wages, the best talent will leave for "greener pastures", while those that remain will be tempted to use their positions for their own financial gain whenever the opportunity presents itself.
"Civil servants in most countries have decent salaries, reaching the middle-class level at least. They don't need to worry about daily necessities and can live comfortably after retirement. Therefore, they have no need to be constantly on the prowl looking for more income," explains Wu Xue'an, a media commentator.
Some scholars argue that we are all governed by economic laws, saying it is unreasonable to ask officials to stick to the high moral ground if their standard of living is not comparable to their social status.
Most people who advocate high, or rather higher, salaries for civil servants are either officials or academics. Their appeals have met with an avalanche of resistance, however, from those who oppose increasing wages for various reasons.
The most straightforward attack questions the feasibility of such a proposition. No economy can afford to pay high salaries to the bloated bureaucracy in China today, said Chen Lumin, another media commentator. "If we look at the 1999 data, the rate of civil servants among the general population in China is one in 30. Compare that with Indonesia, 1:98; Japan, 1:150; France, 1:164 or the US, 1:187. The comparison yields graver results if we study our own history. In the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), this rate was 1:7,948; for the Tang Dynasty (618-907), 1:3,927; for the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), 1:2,299; and for the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 1:911. We're always talking about slimming down the government, but we have the most swollen government anywhere, of any time," Chen asserted.
"If we don't substantially reduce the size of the civil servant army, it's just empty talk to significantly raise their salaries," the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences' Yu Xiqiang, who has studied corruption, told China Daily.
The widening wealth gap is another concern. "People are always telling us how much more Hong Kong and Singapore officials make. But shouldn't they also remind us how much more the general populace makes in those places?" asked Chen Lumin.
Wen Shizhen, Party secretary of Liaoning Province, also disputes the high-salary rhetoric. China, at this stage of economic development, does not have the financial prowess to resort to such a measure, he said, and it would only exacerbate wealth distribution.
The wealth-gap argument is sometimes pushed even further. For example, should officials in more developed coastal regions make more than those in the hinterlands? "If you raise the bar in one place, you can rest assured that those in other places will find all kinds of excuses to 'catch up with the Joneses'," said Chen Lumin.
Exactly how high a salary is needed to curb the temptation of a bribe? Who has the right to determine this salary level? Should it be the officials themselves or people who represent the public? Wang Hongqi asked these questions in a People's Daily website posting.
Greed knows no bounds, and no matter how high the salary is, it will never match the financial rewards of bribery, contend naysayers like Wang Hongqi. "Say, 2,000 yuan (US$242) is a typical salary for a civil servant. Let's assume we increase it by 200 per cent to 6,000 yuan (US$725). Will he be satisfied? He can probably make more than that in a single day if he is corrupt and in the right position," said Zhang Ji, a columnist.
"To guarantee a corruption-free Hu Changqing, we may need to pay him 7 million yuan (US$845,676); and likewise, 14 million (US$1.69 million) for Li Chenglong, plus a few mistresses; and 40 million (US$4.83 million) for Cheng Kejie," Zhang hypothesized, mentioning several headline-grabbing personages who have fallen afoul of the law.
If the theory of equilibrium holds water, officials in China are already overpaid, claimed Chen Lumin. Why do so many people go chasing after government positions that presumably pay meagre wages? "Everyone knows the real perks: free use of government cars, heavily subsidized housing, generous expense accounts and bonuses of all kinds. Mind you, these are all legal but are never counted as part of the official pay packet. And then, there are grey areas, where money or gifts may not be legal.
"If some official complains about his low income and quits his job, I'm sure there's a long queue of candidates who cannot wait to fill the position," Chen continued. As a matter of fact, there have been sporadic reports of fed up government employees leaving their posts - they are usually greeted with collective bewilderment, as if to say these officials have lost their senses.
How high is high?
Meanwhile, the salary tactic has been quietly working, said Yu Xiqiang, the Guangzhou researcher. In the past few years, civil servants have received incremental but cumulatively substantial pay raises. Economically, they are no longer at the bottom of the social ladder, but comfortably situated in the middle class.
But a middle-class salary is hardly sufficient to lure potential CEOs of State-owned enterprises, positions often filled by senior officials from the very government agency that oversees these businesses. In Shenzhen, a new pay system has set the annual salary of these government-backed senior executives between 100,000-600,000 yuan (US$12,081-72,487). The compensation package is composed of a base salary, stock options and bonuses that are measured by as many as 20 performance benchmarks.
Foshan, in Guangdong Province, is mulling over whether to implement a similar system in which mayors of the towns in its jurisdiction would be limited to incomes of 150,000-300,000 yuan (US$18,122-36,243) a year. No doubt it caused a controversy when news about it leaked out. "I have no problem with the sum if one's contribution and job performance merit it. But there's so much mediocrity in bureaucracy that it may be money down the drain. We should first install a system that weeds out the incompetent," said Wu Xue'an.
"A high salary is necessary, but it is not sufficient to combat corruption," said Xie Ming, associate professor at Renmin University of China. "It must be supplemented by tougher laws and more rigorous prosecution."
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