The Fox News of China Sparks a National Debate on 'Proper' Corruption

Ever-controversial Global Times published a surprisingly frank editorial that hit on a long-running Chinese debate over reform, governance, and democracy.

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A woman leans over copies of Global Times at a newspaper stand in Shanghai. (AP).

In the airtight Chinese print media world, where officials wield the power to splash the same headline across many newspaper front pages or to keep a taboo subject out of even obscure one-line advertisements, editorials are usually painless scratches over petty social occurrences. One would not expect them to engage their millions of readers on a controversial subject. But that's exactly what Global Times, circulation 2 million, did when it addressed Chinese government corruption. With one unsigned editorial, the paper sparked a heated, if apparently unintended, debate on a sensitive topic that is usually a no-go zone for such large, public discussions.

The tabloid newspaper, owned and published by party mouthpiece People's Daily, dropped a bomb with its editorial last week titled "Fighting Corruption Is a Strenuous Battle in China's Social Development." It argues that corruption exists in all countries, including China, which will not be able to eliminate it any more than can any other country. Rather, it says, the key is to contain corruption to a level that citizens will accept. Comparing China to democratic Asian countries that are also dealing with corruption, the editorial reads, "China is possibly the country in Asia right now where 'the pain of corruption is most keenly felt.'" But unfortunately there is no quick remedy to this pain, because "corruption in China cannot be eliminated through fighting against it or through reform. ... It is a problem embedded in Chinese society's overall level of development," and thus "needs to be solved through 'development.'"

"You can be properly corrupt, so can I properly protest!"

In other countries, this would hardly be a provocative or even especially interesting statement. But China is not other countries, and the editorial has drawn disbelief, ridicule, and satire on social media here. The editorial is surprising not for acknowledging that corruption is a widespread problem but for telling readers that they should resign themselves to accepting that "proper level" of corruption. In appearing to diverge from the official line that the Communist Party is committed to fighting corruption in all its forms, and suggesting that it is even willing to accept some corruption, the editorial has unwittingly reinforced many peoples' worst beliefs about their government and its true intentions.

"A proper level of corruption? What level? What kind of logic is this?" user Hailiuliu asked on his Weibo account.

"Yes, we should also understand a proper number of high-speed rail crashes, a proper level of poison in milk, a proper amount of leather in food, a proper use of torture in extracting testimonies, a proper sum of compensation for forced eviction and demolition, a proper reduction in reported embezzled money, a proper degree of lies in news, proper distortion of truth, proper screening of public opinions, proper social regression, and proper loss of civilization..." vented Xu Xin, a prominent Chinese legal scholar.

Zhaobudaoedeganjue summed up the public reaction on Weibo with one line: "You can be properly corrupt, so can I properly protest!"

The immense attention the editorial has garnered underscores some deep-seated belief and anxieties in China regarding the status quo of Chinese society, and where concepts like corruption, rule of law, and even democracy fit in.

In recent months, top Chinese leaders, from president Hu Jintao to successor Xi Jinping, have maintained a drumbeat of warnings against corruption. Perhaps the most memorable statement came from Premier Wen Jiabao, immediately following the ouster of Bo Xilai, Chongqing's former party chief and the investigation into his corruption record. "We have a profound understanding of this: That corruption is the greatest threat to the ruling party," he wrote in an article titled "Let power be exercised in the sunshine." "If not solved properly, the nature of the regime will change, and its rule may end."

It is unclear, however, to what degree this campaign has convinced the public. Despite the party's effort to trumpet Bo Xilai's ouster as a triumph of the rule of law, many people, in discussing the matter on Weibo or in private, seem to believe that Bo's downfall was actually a result of the central party's back-room political jockeying and power struggles. The inextricable linkage between power and wealth in China's top leadership, many people suspect, will likely stem the promised anti-corruption drives. Suspicious of the government's words, many Chinese readers took the Global Times editorial as finally spelling out the party's true beliefs.

"Now they are just being honest, but we are still cheating ourselves," reflected Aaron_zyl on his Weibo.

The editorial has also hit on a deeper public anxiety, which questions whether seeking democracy is the best immediate solution to social woes such as corruption, and wonders whether a more gradual approach might better reform China. Earlier this year, Han Han, a popular young writer and perhaps the nation's most influential non-government opinion leader, sparked a heated nationwide debate on these issues with three essays on his blog. In one, titled "On Democracy," he staked out a more moderate view on political change than many of his supporters imagined he'd held. "I believe that a very strong one-party-system is the same as a no-party system. When the party organization reaches a certain size, it becomes the people itself," he wrote. "So the issue is not to deal with the Communist Party this way or that. The Communist Party is just the name. The system is just the name. If you change the people, everything changes." As a result, Han wrote, he believes China should "go after one small thing at a time. There is no point in frustrating oneself by dreaming about democracy and freedom in our study rooms. Reform is the best answer."

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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