Chinese Corruption vs US Corruption
Not a day goes by when the New York Times or Wall Street journal makes another claim to the ingrained corruption and nepotism that plagues Chinese Society and political dialogue, citing purged officials and an angry Chinese public whose growing demands for accountability and truthfulness are not being met.
The similarly styled articles are printed every week by our most highly regarded sources of investigative journalism to a nauseating degree, so much that we now ignore these articles as common knowledge and not worth wasting our morning for. Yet despite that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have offices in China, these articles fail to grasp the essence of Chinese corruption, choosing instead to view everything from a purely Western point view. Allow me to clarify the following American assumptions of Chinese corruption.
China is a ‘relationship society’ whereas the United States is an individualistic ‘contract society’. What this means is that in China, relationships with family and friends are more important than satisfying the needs and wants of strangers (we call this nepotism). This attitude permeates heavily into Chinese business circles, where the issue of trust in a nation of 1.4 billion people is so important that the best business contracts are better given to people you already have a relationship with than to a business with a better price, but whose boss you have never met.
There are two reasons for the prevalence of this behavior, one cultural and the other historical. The cultural reason is that an individual is duty bound to help his or her family and close relatives before helping someone outside the family circle. And as such, decisions where resource allocation is determined always result in the most money being given to those closest to you. Hence, a big company boss is better off giving the reins to his son than to give power to an outsider lieutenant, thereby keeping money in the family. The historical reason is that throughout China’s 5000 year history there have been many changes of government, such that over time, relationships became more important than the new legal code, because a new imperial dynasty found it easier to let certain things be than to change the whole system. The United States on the other hand has had the same, very stable system of government for its entire existence, giving Americans the sense of stability needed for a contract society to develop successfully.
What is often seen as corruption in America is really just considered good business practice in China. Problems really develop when Western businesses cooperate with Chinese businesses, and as such have to deal with different ways of operating.
China is a nation where the survival of the group trumps individual rights, whereas the United States values minority rights. Furthermore, the individual is expected to place their wants and needs on standby so that their social circle can survive, and remember that Confucian values place duty to family over duty to strangers. In the United States, a minority or individual is expected to be given the same chances and opportunities at the start as everyone else, and that the minority participation is at least guaranteed. Examples of this in China would include where a younger staff member’s prospects of glory and achievement must be put on hold, and if desired outright, must be silenced so that the current leadership can centralize its powers. The elders get the meat in Chinese society, and the young are left with the bones. Shareholders in the United States, although respecting elder leadership, will not hesitate to fire a CEO who makes mistakes, regardless of his age or connections to other powerful people.
In conclusion, corruption is a serious threat to any society, developed or otherwise. Yet it is nonetheless prudent to think and consider that what one nation sees as corruption may be a little more acceptable in another, for cultural or historical reasons. The presence of corruption in China is not entirely different from corruption in the States, yet the way we as a society view it is very different.
Adam Tesluk is a young Californian writer with an education technology services start-up company in Beijing.