China must draw the line on corruption

Asia Times

ROME - Letters circulated recently that criticized President Jiang Zemin's speech on July 1, the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party in China, raise many issues that should be addressed by the leadership. However, the response would be completely opposite to the one meant by those who drafted the letters, and would, strangely, pull Beijing closer to Rome.

Jiang's speech was kept under wraps for months, until the moment of delivery, and rightly so. In fact, a first draft was circulated almost a year prior to the anniversary. It was quite bold, bolder than the speech he finally delivered, but it drew much criticism. Leftists within the party saw it as a departure from the party's traditions and Jiang, for the sake of party unity, pledged to review it. Aware that even his watered-down version might not convince the Leftists, but determined to mark a change for the important anniversary, Jiang crafted a message that would be acceptable to the Left and yet which would signal a new era - that is, welcome entrepreneurs, the driving force in the past 20 years of China's growth, into the party.

Nevertheless, the Leftists now raise the issue of the legitimacy of the speech. They argue that it should have been vetted by the party leadership, but they leave unclear who should have been included in this definition. In many cases in the past, elderly and retired party leaders were invited to meetings, and although they could not vote they were asked for their opinions. The tone of the Leftists' criticism lets us surmise that no such enlarged meeting was held, as it should have been, they imply, as at stake was the party's tradition and its future role.

Jiang's position appears to be different. Though respectful of the contributions of the elderly members, he took it upon himself to push for a party shift along the lines of the theory of the "three representatives", which had gained the support of the top echelon of the party. In other words, he decided to bear the responsibility for his leadership and make a policy change. He is aware that the decision will not satisfy all party members, but seems happy that it will satisfy most of them, especially those drawn from among the entrepreneurs.

Members who disagreed with him were not, and will not be, purged, as happened in the times of Mao Zedong, and they have had a chance to circulate their dissent. By admitting this fringe criticism and taking the decision in the manner he did, Jiang opens the door to a new kind of party leadership, one that is chosen to fulfill a task (in this case, renewal of the party, development of the nation) and thus one that will have to step down if it accomplishes (because it finishes its mandate) or fails in the set task.

Party leadership is not absolute, almost Heaven-sent, as previously it was thought to be. Rather, it is subject to possible revisions and to some criticism. Yet in the end there is a party leadership, and the leader has to take decisions. To ultimately challenge these decisions would be to challenge Jiang's role as a leader; are the Leftists willing to go this far?

To do so would throw the party into chaos similar to that of the Cultural Revolution. If they do not challenge Jiang, they must accept his decisions.

The second issue is a tricky one. The Leftists say that Jiang admits the positive role of entrepreneurs, but that he forgets their tainted hand in the issue of corruption. This goes to the core of a major problem in China - the still unclear difference between what is legal and what is illegal in business practices. In fact, if we believe that all riches are ill-gotten (which is an unsaid premise of many vulgar communists, not of Karl Marx's though) or if we believe that all wealth hides some form of exploitation (this is partly Marx), then wealth is corruptive in a moral sense as it draws us further away from our real goal, communism on Earth.

However, since Deng Xiaoping's reforms, China has decided to put aside the quasi metaphysical idea of Mao's communism and has proceeded with a market economy, which for all practical purposes is tantamount to what is otherwise called a modern capitalist economy. Such an economy moves according to international rules, and this process has paid its dividends: China has quintupled its Gross Domestic Product in 20 years, and no-one, not even the toughest Leftists, want to give this up.

In terms of international rules, corruption exists in China, but in a sense much narrower than the Leftists imply. There are clear legal ways to make money, gray ways and "corrupt" black ways. China should, like other countries, clearly define the illegal ways and forget about what is not clearly forbidden. If it does not do this it will have to fight a hugely difficult uphill battle. Anything could be considered corruption and thus it would convince the common people that corruption was indeed pervasive and thus impossible to fight, thereby paving the way for the next communist (or whatever you want to call it) revolution.

The party has refrained so far from drawing a clear line for corruption because it knows that by doing so it could touch on some practices that provide satisfaction for those common people left behind in the social development that is creating new social classes, and well as new social frictions and clashes.

For example, there may well be cases in which the director of a factory pockets cash, and he should be legally tried and punished, But there might be cases where he just made the wrong business decision and lost money, in which case he could be dismissed, but certainly not tried. China's laws now don't account for such differences and they do not make clear what is legal and what is illegal money.

To date, marking this difference could have embittered the poor, the ones who were fired from state factories, but not stating the difference would show people the way to a revolution that would wipe out decades of hard work and hamper the entrepreneurs who had driven the growth.

Entrepreneurs would not take risks, and thus not strive to push for economic growth. Taking risks, however well pondered, is by definition risky, and if one were to lose everything in taking a risk, China would become risk averse and growth would stop.

Therefore, the Leftists are wrong because their criticism of the "broad corruption" would take China back to Mao's times, yet they are also right: To effectively fight corruption the government has to limit and clarify the meaning of corruption. In this the government must join hands with the entrepreneurs, who have an interest in a stable and transparent business environment without kickbacks (everywhere businesspeople would rather pay reasonable, predictable taxes than slightly lower yet arbitrary bribes).

Drawing a line between legal and illegal access to wealth also clears the path to the poor, who clearly know what to do to improve their status, and this will help prevent violent social uprisings.

Through such an effort the Communist Party will not become the party of the capitalists, or remain the party of the workers - it will be, as it is now, an interclass party, as is the case in many Western countries, in particular the Christian Democrat party in Italy.

Tomorrow: The Italian example (2001-08-07 Asia Times)


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