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The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and how it shapes corruption in China

I recently finished Dan Ariely’s book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way Global Times tried, I do think we are overlooking a few key points.

For one, as Ariely argues, cases of embezzlement and fraud are not made up largely of Madoff’s (or Liu Zhijun’s), but of small daily acts by very ordinary people. He shows through his research that for the most part everyone is willing to cheat a little, and that massive cheats are actually far more rare than they should be (if one assumes that a person would cheat as much as is possible without repercussions), and that we should be much more concerned about the tens of millions of officials that go unnoticed.

The way Ariely and his fellow researchers tested their theories was with a basic math quiz, which allowed participants to lie about their score. They were then paid according to the score they reported to gauge how great of an effect variables had on people’s willingness to cheat. Surprisingly, people were unwilling to claim that they had solved all the questions correctly, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, Ariely reasons, cheating is something that needs to be rationalized by the individual so that they can continue to see themselves as a decent person. The massive scams typically involve people who are very good at rationalizing what they are doing. This may explain some officials’ rather unbelievable claims about their “legal income” that seems completely beyond what they are earning on paper. Corrupt officials have likely convinced themselves that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Ariely’s research seems to suggest that something as simple as a pledge at the start of a work day or document could curb some abuse, as it would remind the individuals that these small acts are unacceptable.

There were also several factors that caused an increase in cheating that seemed to correlate to China’s officials. One is that removing physical cash from the equation greatly increased people’s dishonesty. If the award is something like a banquet, a wedding gift for a child, or perhaps a nice box of tea it would be easier to accept without guilt than cash. This means that the periodic gov’t crackdowns on gift cards may actually be more useful than they might have seemed at the outset. Another factor is something as simple as wearing knockoffs, which Dan argues results in the individual viewing themselves as more dishonest, causes people to cheat more to fit this new self-image. I would imagine there would be a similar effect on individuals who wear watches that were “gifted” in a dishonest fashion.

The biggest influence on dishonesty though is a demonstration of someone else cheating without punishment, which most officials likely get a glimpse of in their first gov’t position. I say this based on what I have seen within the schools that I’ve worked in, and the public hospital where administrators wined and dined without rebuke.

However, Ariely did discover that virtually every country’s culture is similarly corrupt, even though people often feel that their culture is especially corrupt (China was included in these tests, and the Chinese researcher was surprised to find there was no difference).  He did believe though that certain professions foster a culture that are more corrupt than others, with gov’t officials being among some of the top offenders (regardless of country).

So then, what lessons can we draw from this book about China? For one, the absolute most effective way of curbing cheating was to be supervised by a a third-party who had zero contact with the individual prior to or during the experiment. However, when the third-party was given time to get familiar with the individual, normal levels of cheating returned, and even slightly increased. This would seem to imply that China’s current system of corruption monitoring is faulty by design. Monitors should not be Party members, they should be frequently reassigned to limit fraternization, and should be closely monitored themselves (perhaps by an unrestrained media, or the citizenry). It would also abandon the idea that harshly punishing a few individuals would be enough to send a message to the rest.

We should also bear in mind that the daily, seemingly minor abuses, are likely more costly than the scandals that are too large to cover up. In a country with tens of millions of gov’t employees, if each employee enjoyed 100rmb in banquets per year (which is an insanely conservative figure), the cost to the citizens would be over a billion yuan (more than Liu Zhijun is said to have embezzled). To reach the level of monitoring that would be required to effectively crackdown on this kind of corruption, the gov’t would have to open their books to the public, which they are loathe to do.

Out of control gov’t official abuses power – a very generic post

On return from more than a week on the road, I caught up with my China news and found it all to be a bit…predictable. In response I’ve created the following template that seems to exist somewhere to save all of you time.

A gov’t official (or family member of an official) was caught abusing their power by murdering/embezzling/forcing farmers off their land/covering up a scandal for a company in X province. The story first appeared on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, late last week and built to a crescendo over the weekend.

SomeGuyWithACamera posted pictures of an angry crowd ranging between dozens and thousands, which were deleted within 24 hours by censors. Calls to the local gov’t went unanswered. A man from the gov’t in the neighboring district said that, “The foreign forces conspiring to bring down China,” had organized this protest in co-operation with the Dalai Lama, he only gave his surname – Wang.

On Weibo there was a wide variety of reactions. ImAngry tweeted, “Gov’t officials are always abusing their power while they claim to be serving the people.” A very different response came later from PossiblyWuMao saying, “Gov’t officials only have our best interests at heart and we shouldn’t expect them to stop at red lights/refuse invitations to expensive dinners/not flee overseas with embezzled money.”

I could go on, but I think you get my point. After several years of consuming almost every scrap of Chinese news, the narrative has gotten stale. The idea that seems to be behind these cases is that Weibo is a tool for ensuring justice in an unjust country, and that the Chinese gov’t is slowly reforming.

As an American, I am lured to this reading, as it reflects my own desire to see the Chinese people taking control over their country. However, we have yet to see a meaningful clean up in gov’t as a result of the widespread abuses we learn of on a daily basis. As much as I hate to say it, Weibo is at best a band-aid or a safety valve – not a source of meaningful reform. If it were, we would be seeing aggressive legislation and an easing of the limits placed on Chinese journalists instead of GT fluff pieces about acceptable levels of graft.

I don’t mean to say that Weibo is fruitless, it has enabled us to get a much bigger picture of what is happening in China, but it is still a carefully managed virtual world with very real boundaries. As a friend in Chengdu told me, he had seen reports of a self-immolation near his home (unrelated to Tibet) and within fifteen minutes of stumbling across the story it had completely disappeared, far too quickly to be picked up by foreign media or anyone else.

Weibo gives a voice to individual Chinese people, but does not allow for a collective voice to call for change. As was noted in a recent study, most criticisms of the gov’t survive censorship while posts relating to organizing much of anything are quickly deleted.

My fear is that in an effort to show the growth of people power in China, we’ve created an image of a  country that is reforming while officials are allowed to bend laws for their own needs and the gov’t shies away from anything that might someday curb their power. Instead of portraying Weibo as the hero of the tales we tell, it would be a better use of ink (and bandwidth) to focus more closely on the groups and individuals pushing for change.

Memories from my first year in China

As I prepare to head back to the US, I want to share a few of my favorite memories from my five years in China.

Late 2007 was a fantastic time to arrive in China. It was the perfect chance to get wrapped up in all of the Olympic hype, and even in the remote county of Longzhou the students could hardly contain their excitement. In October I was asked to fill out a survey from the provincial gov’t to gauge my enthusiasm, and while it seemed odd to ask someone who couldn’t have ended up much further from Beijing, I was pretty excited too.

As the Olympics grew closer China’s gov’t faced two huge challenges, the widespread Tibetan uprising, and the devastating Wenchuan Earthquake.

It was during the Tibetan protests that I had my first experience with internet censorship. At that time the web in China seemed freer than it does now (at least in English). We still had Facebook and Youtube, and for the most part G-mail was speedy and reliable. The rapid blocking of news articles was concerning and surprising. One had to stick to the news sites and hit refresh until something new came up and then load the link before the censors found it. Articles had to be copied into word documents to be sent to friends in China, the links would stop functioning almost instantly.

Sites like popped up (which unsurprisingly was never blocked), and bashing the West became part of my campus’ activities. I remember a friend in Lanzhou sending me a link to a breathless BBC reporter covering her city from the back of a car as he “evaded” the police. She told me that students had been barred from going home, but that the city seemed more or less the same. The coverage wasn’t inaccurate as much as overly dramatic (with the exception of a few misattributed photos).

A student group presented me with a t-shirt that had a fist smashing through Tibet that read, “Tibet has always been a part of China, don’t divide our nation.” After a fruitless conversation about the meaning of the word “always,” and questioning whether or not Tibetan’s felt that it was their nation, I thanked them for the shirt and went on my way. I was glad no one noticed that I never wore it. Protesters around the world rallied against the Olympic torch parade in solidarity with the Tibetans, but that wasn’t how my students saw it. The west was once again trying to divide and cripple China.

Then the earthquake happened, and I suddenly found myself struggling against the censors again. As the world watched the horrific death toll climb, there was also an outpouring of approval from friends overseas at the efficiency of the Chinese response compared to what our gov’t had failed to muster after Hurricane Katrina. It would be some time until they started hearing the reports that shoddy construction had caused the large number of student deaths. I remember listening to a broadcast of a family mourning the death of their child and their parents who had died together in one building. I’m generally not an emotional person, but the pain in their voices was so raw that it pulled something out of me that I didn’t even know was there.

A Tibetan friend later told me that his hometown had been very fortunate in the quake, because there were still so many soldiers there from the riots. With the roads destroyed, the soldiers had no choice but to pitch in and help with the rescue efforts.

For months I had been distracted from the Olympics, but when the torch arrived in Nanning I had to see it for myself. The streets were packed with eager students decked out in every bit of red they could find. I think the schools in the region had been encouraged to facilitate their presence, but every single one of them seemed ecstatic about the opportunity. Back in Longzhou the students had been prodded to stage a mock torch run through the town. One of the male Chinese teachers joked about draping himself in a French flag, stealing the torch, and then screaming “Free Tibet.” When he said this, my parents, who were visiting at the time, just about fainted. Was this really something we could joke about? The teachers and the students were frequently worlds apart when it came to politics.

As the flame slowly passed by, the crowd went into the kind of frenzy that’s usually reserved for teenage girls meeting the cast of Twilight. I was swept up in it too.

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Months later I watched the opening ceremony not from Beijing, but at my parent’s home in the Midwest. The broadcast was a delayed feed, and all day folks on the radio had been chatting about what a fantastic feat it had been. My twin brother had flipped the radio off when the hosts started detailing the performance, he didn’t want any spoilers. I was beaming with pride, and I knew every single one of my students were too. For a moment, the world stopped talking about Tibet, tofu structures, and human rights, and we collectively marveled at the transformation that now seemed complete – China had arrived triumphantly on the world stage. It was a magnificent time to be here, but the admiration quickly faded.

Since then, each major event in China has attempted to reclaim the world’s spotlight, and each has fallen short – the 60th anniversary of the nation, the Shanghai Expo, Universiade, and I’m betting that the Youth Olympics will also be found lacking (my co-worker told me today, “Nobody is looking forward to it. It’s just a waste of money and causes a lot of traffic. I don’t care about it at all.”) I hope though that I will get to experience such exuberance in China again.

“They told us to love the Chinese and ‘look East’ for solutions” – Stories of China in Africa

As we looked at yesterday, China may not be as welcomed in Africa as some authors might argue. My friends told me a few stories after reflecting on our first discussion that I thought should be shared, but didn’t quite fit into yesterday’s post.*

Friend from Zambia

You know, it’s probably not fair to think that the Chinese are only bad for Zambia. If they weren’t there many of the mines would have closed. Any job is better than no job. The people working in the mines just consider how much better things were for them when the mines were operated by the gov’t, rather than thinking about what it would be like without any job at all. If we were rational we’d probably be thankful, but we aren’t.

We have a law that the bosses of the mines should be down in the shafts with the workers (this is supposed to improve safety), but when one of the mines collapsed it was only dead Zambians, the Chinese bosses didn’t even get dust on them. This happens in China too, but its not acceptable for them to do business in Zambia like they do in China. Were trying to get rid of corruption in my country, but it seems even more difficult when foreign companies refuse to obey the laws.

Friend from Zimbabwe

I remember when our economy collapsed after Mugabe took the land from the white farmers and gave it away. We didn’t call it land re-distribution, we called it something like “cleaning up.” After that with the sanctions and the departure of foreign companies, it was like things got worse every day. We had to start lining up for bread at midnight, and it seemed like every few weeks they were having to cut another string of zeroes from our money. It was a mess.

Then the Chinese came to invest, and things stopped getting worse. The government told us at that time to love the Chinese, and to “look East” for solutions to our problems. We didn’t like them though. Around that time, the government started cutting off all of the other voices in the media, so people started buying satellite dishes so they could watch foreign news and dramas. The government was then going to make these dishes illegal, and it was like we were becoming China.

When the Chinese companies came, they always brought a lot of their own workers, and so the government gave them some land in our low-density neighborhoods for housing. A few months later they had built a high-rise apartment building in the middle of this suburb. In that area people had walls around their home for privacy, but with this new building there was no more privacy.

Friend from Ghana

Even though it’s been decades since the colonialists left, our governments still have a colonial mind set when it comes to our economies. We export resources to foreign companies instead of refining them. This limits employment, and keeps us from realizing the full value of our resources. It’s not that China is colonizing us, but that they encourage us to keep the same frame of mind.  Our leaders our interested in the easy gains, but one day our minerals and oil will run out and then what will we do?


These stories highlight an important lesson that most world powers forget – just because you’re doing something that grows GDP doesn’t mean that you will be liked for it (ask a Tibetan, Uighur, Afghan…). China is helping to develop Africa’s economy, but many Africans want to see improvements in their governments. In my friends’ view it seems that their government officials are getting richer while their own needs go unmet. Like most foreign based projects, China is offering what it has available instead of what the locals are asking for, and these two forces create tension and opposition.

*These are paraphrases, not word for word, but the speakers have reviewed them to make sure I captured their thoughts.

China’s Party approved version of history part 3 – “Socialism is the only way to save China”


Ushering in a new era of development in the cause of socialism 5.1

The Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was a significant transition in the history of the party and the state since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Deng Xiaoping as its core throroughly reviewed the lessons from its experience in socialist construction, emancipated their minds, sought truth from facts, made the historic decision to shift the focus of the Party and country’s work to economic development and to implement reform and opening up, laid out the Party’s basic line for the primary stage of socialism and the three-step strategy for modernizing the country, created Deng Xiaoping Theory and blazed the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Opening a new chapter in reform, opening up and modernization 5.2

Faced with enormous changes in the international environment and rapid progress of domestic reform and development, the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Jiang Zemin as its core held high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, upheld the reform and opening up policy, kept up with the times, created a new socialist market economy, formulated the Party’s basic program for the primary stage of socialism, embarked on a new stage of full opening up, promoted the great new undertaking to build the Party, created the important thought of Three Represents, and carried the successful implementation of socialism with Chinese characteristics into the 21st century.

Opening a new chapter in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects 5.3

Standing at a new historical starting point, the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Hu Jintao as its General Secretary follows unswervingly the guidance of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents. It strives to keep up with new developments in and outside China, grasp the strategic opportunities in this important period, stay realistic and pragmatic, and make pioneering efforts. It has articulated the Scientific Outlook on Development and other strategic thinking. It is working hard to promote scientific development and social harmony, improving the socialist market economy, and resolutely carrying forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics while building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.


Over the past one hundred years and more, the Chinese people have written a magnificent epic of solidarity, struggle, self-improvement and resilience. Since the founding of the Communist Party of China ninety years ago, under the strong leadership of the CPC, our great nation has successively achieved many historic changes from a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society to a brand new society of national independence and rule of the people; from new-democratic revolution to socialist revolution and construction; from highly centralized planned economy to vibrant socialist market economy and from semi-closure to comprehensive openness. History has proven that without the CPC, the People’s Republic of China would never have come into being, nor would socialism with Chinese characteristics; socialism is the only way to save China, and reform and opening-up is the only way to develop China, develop socialism and develop Marxism.

Standing on this new historic point and facing the future, one cannot but feel the weight of mission on our shoulders. We shall closely unite around the CPC central leadership with Hu Jintao as its General Secretary, hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, follow the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of “Three Represents,” carry out the Scientific Outlook on Development thoroughly, join efforts to forge ahead and persistently strive for the great goals of implementing the 12th Five-Year Program and building a moderately prosperous society.

The case of the effusive businessman – Succeeding in China with charm

For some reason, I’ve been brought to a number of business meetings even though I am in no way a businessman. Yet, I’ve been a part of making decisions related to hiring and forging partnerships. Today I thought I’d share a few cases that may prove of some use to those of you looking to succeed in China.

The case of the effusive businessman

An older white man sits down at a table full of Chinese faces. With a strong Aussie accent he manages to say in Chinese, “Hello, I’m very happy to be here with you today.” The meeting begins with laughter, and whispers of how good his Chinese is (even though it really isn’t). Over the course of the meetings and meals he shares his observations on the simple joys of Chinese life; things like seeing the elderly folk exercise in the park, the challenges of learning Chinese, and the wonderful flavors of Chinese food. The man extols the values of Chinese culture as he pushes new dishes on the other foreign delegates, and encourages them to speak a few basic phrases in Chinese (which were grammatically incorrect).

At the end of the day, he has secured an agreement to begin a 10 year research program that will require his partners to invest a large sum of money. In all honesty, his partner is gaining little more than face by entering such a deal (it tackles a problem that China doesn’t actually have), and yet his effusive spirit has convinced them that it is a worthwhile endeavor.

The man succeeded by showing a genuine interest in China which conveyed his level of commitment to the project. The Chinese delegation was surprised to see a foreign businessman who had bothered to learn more than just “Ni hao” and “Xiexie;” most potential partners apologize for their lack of language skills and claim that they are simply involved in too many countries to manage more. Moreover he didn’t stop at learning a bit of the language, but also read a few books on Chinese history, and quoted a famous saying from Mao Zedong to everyone’s delight.

All in all, his efforts probably took a little over 20 hours of study, or roughly the time it takes to fly from the East coast of the US to Beijing or Shanghai, but left a remarkable impression on the Chinese delegation (which I was a part of). As naive as he might have sounded with his sweeping claims that all elderly Chinese are happy, it played very well to his audience. I know this may seem like common sense, but you would be surprised by the number of people who undermine their own efforts by not taking time to learn about more than just China’s economy.

The case of the sickly teacher

Another time I was asked to attend a banquet for a prospective foreign teacher at my school in Guangxi. Bear in mind that it was a very low paying job in a remote town (2 hours away by bus from the nearest KFC), the school knew very few foreigners were willing to accept such a position and had decided they would hire virtually anyone who walked through the door.

Again, it was an elderly man, and he had just finished the long trip from Taiwan where he had met an agent to find him a job in the mainland. The man was sick and exhausted. At lunch he hardly talked, complained about the liquor, and didn’t eat much of anything without asking what exactly it was. He hadn’t bothered learning about China, and bumbled through lunch with comments about how the staff should know more about western customs to make their guests more comfortable. For the most part he only talked with me instead of engaging with the school’s vice-president and the dean of the English department; he left that to the agent assuming she would dispense pleasantries on his behalf.

When the meal ended he moved his suitcases into the apartment that had been set aside for the new teacher and headed to the supermarket to buy supplies. A moment after I got to my apartment, the head of foreign affairs called to ask me what I had thought of the new teacher. I flipped the question back on her before answering, and she replied that the leaders had some concerns about him – he wasn’t friendly. Within the hour the school had the man back on a bus to Nanning (4 1/2 hours away), wishing him good luck in finding a job somewhere else.

I’ve seen this several times – the expat that expects his/her future employer to bend to western culture and accept that anything they do should be excused because of their lack of understanding. Both businessmen and foreign teachers expressing surprise that “a sure thing” has suddenly slipped from their grasp due to a different kind of naivete than that displayed by the effusive businessman.

Again it seems like common sense, but in China, learning even a little about the culture, the language, and the history can be all it takes to quickly build friendships, and failing to do so can be all it takes to sour a deal.