It was fun to wine and dine with friends and relatives over the Chinese New Year holidays, but small talks often ended in heavy hearts.
Some described in length about how some of their business friends had prepared big-ticket gifts for government officials. Others told of how some rich Chinese lavished in shopping sprees in Paris and snatched up upscale apartments in Shanghai and overseas. Still others revealed how each and every project could potentially bring down several officials.
These stories are nothing new. However, the perpetual nature of these topics today means that social woes have not been wiped out or wound down.
The latest survey by people.com.cn shows that corruption and income disparity are two of the top five concerns among the Chinese ahead of the upcoming annual sessions of the National People's Congress - the legislature - and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) - a political advisory body.
If you've read the news headlines of the past year, you would find a long list of high-ranking officials under investigation or rounded up on various corruption charges: from Li Tangtang, deputy chief of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region government; Huang Yao, vice-chairman of Guizhou CPPCC; Chen Shaoji, Guangdong deputy Party secretary and CPPCC chairman; Xu Zongheng, mayor of Shenzhen; and Wen Qiang, former leader of Chongqing municipal judicial bureau.
While the punishments for these corrupt officials might be interpreted as a stronger resolve on the part of the government to combat graft, no room for complacency is allowed.
No effective mechanism has so far been introduced to root out the causes of widespread corruption, such as nepotism and bribery. Much of the government's operations are still opaque at best rather than transparent, and gives ample room for under-the-table deals and other shady opportunities.
For one thing, the long-anticipated income and asset disclosure system for senior public servants remains merely a lip service despite public outcry. Optimistically speaking, the system - which is practiced in many countries - might only become a small-scale experiment in limited government sectors in the coming years.
What is embarrassing is that a full disclosure of the income and assets of each and every government official would simply expose way too many scandals.
The people.com.cn survey also shows greater public grievances with county and division-level officials, officials in the police and the courts, and with prosecutors. Unfortunately the ample opportunities for corruption have made the occupation as a public servant one of the most contested jobs in the past year.
As corrupt officials squander illicit money and send their family members, relatives and friends on shopping sprees in Paris, hundreds of millions of migrant workers roaming the country are struggling to get a bus or train ticket home for the Spring Festival family reunion.
The long queues of workers staying for days and nights outside a ticket office in the freezing winter are sad stories every year. It is a reminder of how these people have been left behind during the nation's supersonic economic growth in the past decades.
The country's Gini coefficient, which measures the inequality of income and wealth, has already reached an alarming 0.48, turning our once egalitarian society into one of the most unequal on the planet. The trend is further worsening.
The ongoing people.com.cn survey also reveals other major public concerns such as pension, forced relocation, steep housing prices, unemployment, health care, a fair judicial system, public supervision and access to quality education.
Although these are not new problems for the country, it is sad to hear people bring them up time and again every year in a tone that is growing in anger.
No one expects a quick solution to all these tough issues. Keeping the wide-ranging corruption and widening income gap unchecked simply means we are moving away from the harmonious society we are trying to build.
I hope the talks at the next Chinese New Year dinner will be less disheartening. But to achieve that would require lots of tough actions, rather than endless tiresome talks.
(China Daily 02/24/2010 page8)