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By Chang Ping, published: October 18, 2015
“Everyone’s already used to it, and that’s precisely the problem.”
Now the United Nations has its own, China-style “big tiger.” The former head of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe, is being charged with taking bribes from numerous Chinese business interests, and was arrested near New York City recently. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his shock, requesting the UN’s internal supervisory agency to begin its own procedures. Corruption in any form at the UN, or in the name of the UN, would not be tolerated, he said.
How close this script is to the anti-corruption campaign going on in China. When Xi Jinping expresses surprise at the severity of the corruption at high levels of the regime, Chinese people all know that it’s part of the act—Xi understands officialdom like the back of his hand. I’m sure that Ban Ki-moon is not in quite the same position, but I must still say: Mr. Ban Ki-moon, if you really understood China’s ubiquitous culture of corruption; if you understood how China’s influence on every aspect of the world is increasing; and if you understood the attitude that the UN you lead has toward China, you really wouldn’t be so surprised.
John Ashe received bribes from the Chinese real estate developer Wu Lisheng (吴立胜) to the order of $1.3 million. This money allowed him to push forward a UN project to build a conference center in Macau—with Wu Lisheng’s company as the contractor. Let’s take note of the details surrounding the case exposed by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara: “As alleged in the indictment, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the U.N. General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was corruption. Just like officialdom in China, it accumulated bit by bit, with gold watches, fine suits, and nights of entertainment.
A Habitat for ‘Tigers’
A few years ago a reporter with The Washington Post told me that in America, one can’t accept a meal from a source being interviewed. I said: What about China? He said that if you tried to stick to this principle in China, you’d lose a lot of sources. I have some foreign journalist friends in China, but I’m too embarrassed to broach this kind of subject with them. It would be as laughable as living in a garbage dump and talking to people about not littering.
A German friend told me that when Chinese and German companies do business together, the Chinese side always demands that the Germans travel to the airport to pick them up, especially when a company leader is coming. The demand is the same even if the airport is several cities and many hours drive away. The Germans are always perplexed. Moreover, the Chinese are only willing to get down to business over a meal. Consulting companies explain it away as Chinese culture—if you want to do business, then fit in.
But picking up company heads from the airport isn’t merely a matter of etiquette; it reinforces the Communist Party’s official culture of hierarchy. In China, restaurants and bars aren’t just places for eating and drinking. In a recent article in ChinaFile, the Beijing-based American writer James Palmer gave a detailed description of the sexual and monetary favors and bribes exchanged in the course of doing business in China. Palmer called the system “The Bro Code,” and it started at the dining table.
A senior journalist at the Hamburg Evening News told me that they’ve received letters from the Chinese consulate on a number of occasions, attempting to interfere in the paper’s reporting. He said that the editorial department usually just ignores them—dictatorships like to interfere in freedom of the press; so the press gets used to it. I responded: If a department of the German government sent you one of these letters, would you also just brush it aside? He admitted that this would indeed be a major scandal, and that the media would lodge a serious protest. Everyone knows that one of the reasons the former German president, Christian Wilhelm Walter Wulff, resigned was because he had made a menacing phone call to the chief editor of Bild-Zeitung, thus interfering in the freedom of the press. Evidently the media in Western countries hold a double standard: on the one hand, they demand that their own democratic governments be upright in all respects, and on the other allow dictatorships to act as they please. Everyone’s already used to it, and that’s precisely the problem.
The Chinese government has been successful in convincing many Chinese people that entertainment and politics can be separated. At a hearing in the U.S. Congress on October 7, Rep. Brad Sherman remarked that China’s control of freedom of expression has already exceeded its national borders, and that Hollywood is now catering to Chinese censors’ tastes.
I speak of these anecdotes, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, because I’m sure you already know that when Xi Jinping goes visiting, even countries like France, the cradle of our modern conceptions of human rights, can be made to shut their mouths and not say a word about human rights and other contentious issues. I just want to let you know, prior to the recent shocking news, the sort of relationship China has had with countries around the world.
Appeasement and Corruption Go Together
Let’s now look at the case of the United Nations. In May this year, I was at an international human rights forum in São Paulo, Brazil. I heard the presentation of an international human rights group supported by the UN that had conducted an investigation of the American military’s abuse of prisoners in custody in Afghanistan. I asked them: why don’t you also go and investigate the even worse abuses in the Masanjia Women’s Labor Camp in China? The response: “China’s hard to deal with.”
I believe that this is also the attitude of the UN. The UN is right to publicly condemn the abuses of the American military; but Mr. Ban Ki-moon, do you really not know about the “black jails” all over China that regularly deal out more inhuman brutality? Why don’t they warrant a mention from you?
Mr. Ban Ki-moon, a couple of weeks ago Xi Jinping was in New York with you speaking at the UN Women conference. But you must surely know that the Chinese police, on the eve of International Women’s Day in March, arrested the “Feminist Five” who had planned to protest against sexual harassment on public transportation. They’re still not free. You must also know that Gao Yu, a journalist and the recipient of UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, human rights activist Liu Ping, rights lawyer Wang Yu, and many other women have been locked up by the Chinese government. You must also know the case of rights activist Ms. Cao Shunli, who was arrested in September 2013 en route to attend a meeting of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. By March of 2014 she died of abuse in custody.
When UN Women says not a word of protest about these incidents, how different is it from the All-China Women’s Federation controlled by the Communist Party? Mr. Ban Ki-moon, when Xi Jinping held a grand military parade on September 3, you accepted the invitation and appeared on the rostrum above Tiananmen Square to observe it. Did you really not see how it resembled nothing other than the military parades held by Nazi Germany 70 years ago? Even Hitler didn’t shut down factory production and seal off the ovens of peasants to engineer “military parade blue” skies.
Mr. Ban Ki-moon, you probably think that these political choices all differ from the question of accepting bribes. But let me tell you, all this is itself a type of corruption, and doesn’t conform to the core values of the United Nations. The Chinese government, just like the real estate developers it works so closely with, believe that everything can be solved with money. Go and ask Mr. Ashe, and he’ll likely say that this is how the corruption started: “I was respecting the customs of the Chinese people.” Playing a round of tennis, accepting a watch…
Even though Xi Jinping can’t live up to it himself, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, I’d like to give you these words to remember: fighting corruption means “going after flies and tigers at the same time.” With all the misconduct around you, you oughtn’t be surprised by the revelation of “big tigers.”
Chang Ping (长平) was the former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》). He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.
原文《长平观察：潘基文先生，您不必如此震惊》, translated by China Change.
In China, the possibility of “gray income” can be an important factor when choosing a job. “Gray income” simply refers to receiving “gifts” in exchange for improved service. It is most common when someone controls access to something like health care, education or job opportunities. The difference between this and bribery seems rather arbitrary, but people in China seem to accept the former while being disgusted by the latter.
The prevalence of gray income jumped out at me the other day after a good friend told me of a discussion he had in a local noodle shop with an off-duty policeman and his friend. At some point the policeman’s friend brought up the issue of gray income and how police officers have many sources of it, which the policeman vehemently denied. His friend than countered with a single piece of damning evidence, somehow this lowly public servant was able to afford to send his daughter to study in the US.
I’ve noticed similar disparities between people’s income and the purchases they make, and many Chinese netizens have taken notice too. In my office we joke that doctors’ coats have many pockets, because they need many places to hold red envelopes. Colleagues brush it off by saying that this is simply a way for the patient to thank them.
More often though, gray income is disguised in gift giving.
I was unaware of this when I first started working at the hospital. During my first month a doctor handed me a box of green tea after I mentioned that I enjoyed drinking it. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I realized that I had unintentionally placed a social obligation on him that required him to fulfill my reasonable wish (we’ll talk about gift giving more tomorrow). I didn’t feel bad about accepting the box of tea from him since I had seen the closet he retrieved it from was full of similar boxes. Having been given a nice box of tea, I thought it best not to ask too many questions; it was a nice gift.
Yesterday, I finally finished that box of tea, and asked one of my co-workers in my office if she had any tea leaves I could use for my daily tea (it’s winter, and hot beverages are one of our few sources of heat). She pulled out a massive chest and removed a new tin of tea for me. I tried to decline the gift, since I really just needed a pinch, but she insisted, “People give me tea all the time.”
Being nosy (for your sake), I asked, “Who gave you the tea?” To which she replied, “An old gov’t official. He wanted to thank me for helping his mother stay in the hospital.” From our following discussion it was clear that in her mind this was a “gift” and not a “bribe” because it had come after the mother had checked-in.
Like all public hospitals in China, we often operate at 110% capacity, with patient beds spilling into the hallways. Unfortunately, gifts often grease the wheels when it comes time to check-in.
Interestingly, this same co-worker has complained to me numerous times about the wasteful spending on banquets and the way others indulge themselves at public expense.
This form of bribery has even created an entire market of goods that fall into the “gift” category, that are meant to aid in opening doors and making connections. A trip to the local supermarket reveals the low-end range of these items: tea, coffee, mooncakes (around Mid-Autumn Festival), and a variety of local specialties. All of these regular products come in gift form at much higher prices. When you move into more specialized stores, you can see the range of these products move to ever higher price points.
While green tea might be slightly more innocuous than sliding a red envelope into someone’s hand, in reality there is little difference between the two. This socially acceptable bribe is still bribery and encompasses a much larger segment of the population, making it difficult for morally compromised recipients to blow the whistle on the more egregious offenders.