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.

hg june4 p.jpg
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.'"

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."

Radical dissidents such as Ai Weiwei called Han's position "too close to that of the authorities" and the attitude "too acquiescent, almost predicated on flattery," which makes the essay "a good piece for Global Times to run." A great number of readers, on the other hand, sided with Han. Reader Miandiandajinshi wrote in a response that he agrees "the so-called problems of the government and the system" are in fact "problems originated from our nation's deep-rooted bad habits." Prominent historian and critic Yi Zhongtian also echoed Han's argument in his blog post: "When the qualities and understanding of our citizens are not high, we shouldn't have too high an expectation." Many others called Han Han "practical and clear-sighted." In this polarized debate, while the liberals firmly held their ground, they have found the strong support for Han's reformist view hard to dismiss.

The argument laid out by the Global Times editorial, though made far more provocatively than Han Han's, contains some parallels to this more moderate view on Chinese social and political reform, held by what appears to be a not-insignificant swathe of the Chinese middle class.

As the debate raged on, though other official media outlets would have shunned it for its uncomfortable and sensitive nature, Global Times decided to stir it. Hu Xijin, the paper's editor-in-chief, reportedly demanded an apology from Tencent, the web portal that reposted the story with a more provocative title ("China Must Permit a Proper Level of Corruption. Citizens Should Understand"). Posting on his personal Weibo account, which has over two million followers, he urged greater public tolerance to diverse social opinions. "Global Times is trekking a new territory in Chinese media sphere," he wrote. "We can tolerate accusations and sneers and are willing to learn from harsh words. Hopefully all these conflicts and arguments will increase China's social tolerance."

He was at least right about the unique space his paper occupies in Chinese media. Unlike mother-ship publication People's Daily, the pages of which are filled with humdrum bureaucratese, and from other more liberal papers that carefully walk the censor's line, Global Times built its business model on selling nationalism and controversy. Its editorials and coverage on international events regularly feature such headlines as "The West is the Most Responsible Party for Syria's Chaos" and "A new U.S. Strategy to Attack China: Shooting Bullets While Extending an Olive Branch." Its domestic content ranges from muckraking investigations on corrupted officials to party-boosting editorials like this recent one. It has even touched on the taboo 1989 Tiananmen protest, alluding to it at anniversaries. (Here is this year's, on the way politics are discussed on Chinese college campuses.) With a daily print readership of over 2 million and web page view of over 60 million, the paper's business strategy is clearly not failing, while its controversial market positioning has won it the label "China's Fox News."

Is it possible that the entire passionate discussion on corruption and democracy wasn't accidental, but in fact carefully orchestrated by Global Times chief Hu and his editorial team, in line with their typical promotion strategy? Maybe, maybe not. Few on Weibo are asking this question. Yet Hu clearly relishes controversy, and the Chinese public would predictably seize such an opportunity to air its discontent, to level such unveiled criticism and mockery at an easy, government-approved target. (Xinhua, China's official news agency, also published an article berating the Global Times editorial.)

"Properly corrupt, what an engaging topic!" exclaimed Weibo user Hu Maoyin.

"When the editorial appeared online under Tencent's title, a great number of public intellectuals are forwarding it obsessively," Huijian reflects. "And what does that say about us?"