A few months ago I wrote a post titled “There’s no bureaucracy like Chinese bureaucracy” that highlighted a few of the crazier experiences I’ve had with China’s love of hierarchy. Today though I wanted to look at one of the bigger problems with bureaucracy, not that it simply wastes time, but that having millions (literally) of officials with a little bit of status and a small amount of power can be an incredibly dangerous thing.
A recent study came to a rather unsurprising result, when people have power and a low status in the overall hierarchy, they tend to abuse it. For those of us living in China we see this daily in the way the chengguan beat street merchants, the way local gov’t officials wine and dine on the public dime, and even the ordeal a person is put through just to withdraw money from the bank. Joel from Chinahopelive has a great post about Chengguan being satisfied with merchants pretending not to be selling vegetables without a license, but any perceived slight was followed up harshly.
Some might argue that this abuse is actually a symptom of Chinese culture, that somehow pettiness is inherent. These people would argue that as long as there have been officials in China, they have been corrupt, so it must be the culture that promotes this persistent abuse of power. I don’t buy it, this kind of abuse happens in every country.
Instead I think these abuses of power stem from the organization of Chinese gov’t, which explains why they are persistent throughout Chinese history, and why they continue to expand despite efforts to reign them in. China’s gov’t has always seen itself as above the people. Like an omniscient parent, Beijing issues decrees on behalf of the people, without any meaningful input from the people effected by the new law. This system then relies on millions of low ranking officials to implement the new statute. At times it seems like each new law creates a new level of bureaucracy, like the smoking ban that would not be enforced by police or restaurant owners, but by some new entity.
By imbuing so many people with the power to punish those below them while enacting usually murky laws, it is not surprising that there are a myriad of problems at the lowest levels of gov’t (this is especially clear in the book Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants which I cannot recommend highly enough).
However Chinese culture could very well provide the remedy: shaming officials that use their power in malicious ways (or in ways that enrich themselves). Due to the idea of saving face, shame holds an incredible amount of power, especially when it is targeted effectively. In the previous decades the gov’t was able to appease the masses by simply punishing a handful of officials responsible for the most egregious abuses. Today, through the power of Weibo, a much larger group of officials is being scrutinized (which is making Beijing quite uncomfortable).
I’ve actually seen this in action first hand (although it comes from a somewhat disturbing tale). A teacher at a former school of mine was made to sing KTV with officials from the local police department, and after a night of resisting unwanted advances, felt used and dirty (she did manage to fend them off). The next morning she went to the head of the English department and quit, telling them they had hired her to be a teacher, not a prostitute. The school was located in a less than desirable town, and knew it wouldn’t be easy to replace the experienced teacher. It wasn’t long before the dean slightly increased the teacher’s salary and promised her she’d never be forced into another evening like the one she had experienced. Within a few weeks, several of the other young female teachers took similar stands.
Given that it’s highly unlikely that the Chinese gov’t would start reducing the number of officials, the best hope is for activists to begin taking back the power that these low level officials have been abusing.