Petty officials

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.

11 responses to “Petty officials”

  1. Vikash says:

    Imran khan spoke well about corruption in a recent podcast available on the london school of economics website. His point is essentially that if the top layer of an organization is clean, the whole thing will be clean.

    • Baobo says:

      I believe our intelligence agencies have decided that the “top layer” can never be clean, at least not indefinitely. Therefore they enforce the closest thing possible to democracy, which is the illusion of a balanced republic… one that is dysfunctional and constantly bickering with itself to no effect. It seems as if they want citizens to hate government.

    • Tom says:

      That is a very interesting concept, especially since the higher level of government are even more protected than the lowly ones. According to the study they should be the cleanest, but I’m guessing that their immunity from inspection helps them become more corrupt than if each level was equally exposed.

  2. Yaxue C. says:

    Don’t get me started: I have suffered all sorts vicious people in China who have some power over you and abuse it to a hateful extent, from doormen to guards, from immediate bosses to people on higher rungs of the ladder….unless they somehow perceive you as someone who might be of value to them one way or another. I don’t mean all of them—thank god, there are always decent people no matter where–but in China, there are so many more of these people, and tolerance for such abuse is very high, perhaps out of helplessness.

    It is no accident that each political campaign of the party is a field day for thugs. And the party has perfected over the years its art of thuggery: one good example is the use of Global Times (《环球时报》, the netizens aptly call it 《环球施暴》)…I digressed.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Yaxue: What do the netizens call it?

      • Yaxue C. says:

        I am sorry, 美丽,I should never leave Chinese without English again. The netizens call the “Global Times” (《环球时报》)”Global Violence-Perpetrating” (《环球施暴》). Here, “时报”(Times)and “施暴” (Violence-Perpetrating) are homophonic except for tonal difference. And “施暴” (Violence-Perpetrating) captures what this publication is: It is the thug the People’s Daily hires to do dirty things it doesn’t want to do itself.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        Thank you Yaxue. Chinese is a very interesting language!

  3. Brewskie says:

    Just found your blog – excellent work. I’m a US citizen who’s taken an interest in China for a while, and have been doing some research on the country – particularly her new infrastructure of which, sadly, much of it doesn’t appear to be well built. A fair amount of infrastructure-related information obtained comes from Chinese citizens themselves, or foreigners living there; otherwise, it’s combing the press – mostly Asian sources – for pertinent material (very little appears in the US press, which is largely ignorant).

    I have to say the research into Chinese infrastructure never ceases to amaze me; occasionally, I’ve found the corruption behind the construction hilarious. Once, I read a story about two Party officials who were arrested because they awarded a bridge construction project to a blind contractor (the bridge collapsed during construction). Another time, I read an article about a year-old bridge that coughed up pot holes. The construction company reminded the problem by filling the holes up with super glue.

    Anyway, I bookmarked your blog and plan to check it regularly.

  4. Chopstik says:

    At the risk of being pedantic, a little bit of power begets the desire for more power – or at least the ability to wield to one’s advantage. I suspect that, while not endemic only to China, it is something that will keep the country from truly being able to rise above instead of just treading water. For every success, there are still too many failure because of the petty officials all wanting something as a result of their position.

  5. me says:

    I recall a similar conversation with two different taxi drivers. They were complaining about corruption here in China and about how all public officials are crooks that abuse their power and waste the governments’ money. Then I presented them with the question: “What would you do differently if afforded the opportunity to be a public official? Would you be equally corrupt?” Without hesitation, both replied with nearly identical responses: “Of course I would! How else would you expect me to succeed as an official?! If you’re not corrupt, you’ll never go up the ladder!” Taxi drivers here all too often provide the most shameless and thought provoking introspections on China. Such comments leave me more confused than before, trying to make sense of a proud people who seemingly view the battle against corruption as a winless pursuit. Because the Chinese official of centuries past 包拯 (Bao Zheng, a.k.a. Bao Gong or Bao Qingtian 包公 或 包青天, lauded for his character and integrity) is all too important to this discussion, I encourage you to read up about him if you are not familiar with his story. Discussions about corruption in contemporary China become very interesting when set in the context of 包拯. I assure you that if you venture into a discussion about corruption in China with an average laobaixing and mention “Bao Gong,” they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

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