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Perceptions of corruption in the US and PRC – not exactly what one would expect

I was casually browsing through Transparency International’s website, and noticed something peculiar – even though citizens of the Republic of Georgia have a much higher opinion of their country’s ability to deal with corruption in their country relative to their counterparts in the US, and a much more optimistic outlook on the future of public institutions, Georgia ranks 55th on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), whereas the US ranks 19th (see 2013 rankings). Given the inherent difficulty in measuring actual levels of corruption, I understand why PERCEPTION of corruption is widely considered the best available proxy. But IF public perception is so important, I still didn’t understand why Georgia is 36 places lower than the US, when its citizens have a far more positive perception about their country’s ability to contain corruption in virtually every category measured.

I did a little digging and asking around, and I found that CPI rankings actually place LITTLE, IF ANY weight on public perception within the countries being ranked. If Wikipedia is accurate, CPI rankings are actually based on aggregates of “expert opinions” from select institutions that Transparency International (TI) deems “credible”:

“Transparency International commissioned Johann Graf Lambsdorff of the University of Passau to produce the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The 2012 CPI draws on 13 different surveys and assessments from 12 different institutions. The institutions are the African Development Bank, the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, Global Insight, International Institute for Management Development, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, Political Risk Services, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the World Justice Project.”

On the other hand, there is a section in TI’s website that covers public opinion, known as the “Global Corruption Barometer” (GCB), from which I noticed the peculiar results in Georgia and the US. This inevitably made me curious about Chinese public opinion of their own institutions compared to that of Americans, so I found the latest dataset (2010/2011) in which both the US and China were included, and here are some excerpts of the survey results, along with my personal interpretation thereof. What I found so far is that IF public perception is supposed to be a good proxy for actual corruption, then one CANNOT conclude that corruption is somehow worse in China than the US, at least not if you’re to believe the citizens of each country.

Please note, the following does not exmine every survey question and analysis, but those who are interested can easily download the complete dataset for their own study.

1a: % of people that think corruption has increased, stayed the same or decreased in the past 3 years
Decreased Stayed the same Increased
China 24.60% 28.90% 46.40%
USA 5.90% 21.80% 72.20%

While the plurality of both countries’ citizens think the corruption problem is getting worse, a much greater proportion of Americans think so about their own country, relative to the Chinese.

1b: % of people viewing each of 11 institutions as corrupt or extremely corrupt
China USA
Political parties 45.40% 82.10%
Legislature 47.10% 69.80%
Police 47.50% 39.90%
Business 53.60% 54.40%
Media 40.70% 51.10%
Civil Servants 51.80% 61.70%
Judiciary 37.40% 45.00%
NGOs 28.10% 27.00%
Religious bodies 30.60% 35.80%
Military 26.20% 24.30%
Education system  34.50% 30.70%

What’s interesting here is that while both countries’ citizens have a healthy skepticism about all major public institutions, more Americans regard their key decision-making government representatives (parties, legislature, judiciary, civil servants) as MORE corrupt relative to their Chinese counterparts. What’s even more interesting is that even though most Americans think they have a “free press” and “freedom of expression”, fewer Americans trust their media than the Chinese do, despite the fact that the Chinese people clearly notice that their own media has more overt forms of censorship relative to other countries.

1c: Perceptions of corruption for each of 11 institutions (1 = not at all corrupt, 5 = extremely corrupt)
China USA
Political parties 3.4 4.3
Legislature 3.4 4.0
Police 3.4 3.3
Business 3.6 3.6
Media 3.3 3.5
Civil Servants 3.4 3.8
Judiciary 3.0 3.4
NGOs 2.9 3.0
Religious bodies 2.8 3.1
Military 2.7 2.8
Education system  3.0 3.0
Average 3.2 3.4

When asked “just how corrupt” each of the aforementioned institutions are, Americans have a slightly worse perception of their own institutions relative to the Chinese. What I find especially interesting here is that even though the US has an independent judiciary, and China does not, Americans consider their own judiciary more corrupt than do their Chinese counterparts.

2a: % of people that have paid a bribe in the past 12 months
China 9.33%
USA 5.36%

 

2c:% of people that have paid a bribe to each of 9 institutions
China USA
Education system 3.70% 6.50%
Judiciary  13.90% 8.40%
Medical services 10.70% 3.20%
Police 9.40% 5.70%
Registry and permit services 9.80% 9.10%
Utilities 5.60% 4.10%
Tax revenue 7.80% 5.60%
Land services 10.30% 12.50%
Customs  28.20% 18.30%

 

2e:Reason given for the last bribe paid
Speed things up Avoid a problem with the authorities Receive a service entitled to Don’t remember Don’t know
China 31.40% 18.00% 50.60% 0.00% 0.00%
USA 8.10% 21.70% 7.40% 7.70% 54.90%

These three statistics about bribery confirms a stereotype we already know – Chinese are more likely to pay bribes than Americans. However, it seems that the Chinese know exactly what they can expect in return when paying a bribe, whereas the majority of Americans who felt they’ve had to unjustly hand over money to someone have no idea why they’re doing so, or what they should get in return when they do so.

3a:% of people that think the government is effective in the fight against corruption
Effective or very effective Neither effective nor ineffective Ineffective or very ineffective
China 35.70% 29.70% 34.60%
USA 28.50% 0.00% 71.50%

Even though the Chinese government is supposed to be an “authoritarian dictatorship” with little to no accountability to its citizens, the Chinese people actually have relatively more confidence in their own government to fight corruption (even if opinions are very much mixed); whereas the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” – one that’s supposedly far more accountable and accessible – inspires far less confidence in its ability to handle corruption.

3b:Which institution is most trusted to fight corruption
China USA
Government leaders 24.60% 14.70%
Business 1.80% 10.80%
NGOs 17.60% 22.70%
Media 19.60% 13.90%
International organisations 29.40% 3.70%
Nobody 7.10% 34.20%

I find it highly disturbing that the plurality of Chinese people trust global institutions to fight corruption on their behalf. On the other hand, the plurality of their US counterparts have no hope of “salvation” from anyone.

In conclusion, the overwhelming majority of people who look at the CPI will simply rely on the rankings to see “who is more corrupt”, even Eric X Li is no exception. However, if we were to go even one step further (to the next tab on the website), the people’s perception about their own country tells a more nuanced story. What we’ve seen in this simple comparison of the US & China shows that as of 2011, a far greater proportion of Americans have a negative and pessimistic view about the current state of their own public institutions, and that Americans feel they have fewer means available to redress perceived injustices. So if the people’s perceptions of their own government are valid indicators of actual corruption, then one cannot conclude that China is more corrupt than the US. That said, this is simply a snapshot in time, to get a fuller picture of social trends, we would need to compare these results over time, but I will leave that for another blog article.

  1. N.M.Cheung
    January 21st, 2014 at 07:07 | #1

    While it’s true the corruption in China is higher than U.S. I think the nature of corruption is important in judging whether corrective measure can alleviate it. In China the attraction of power as in U.S. is the most important ingredient, bribery as the form of gifts for promotion, expedite bureaucratic entanglements, and business bribery for government land seizures. Given China’s rapid modernization for the last 35 years some of the corruptions were inevitable. Looking at Xi’s anti-corruption campaign against tigers and flies we can see where the lines of attack and whether it’s effective.
    1. Purify the power. No promotion for naked officials (those with families and assets out of the country), avoid parachuting (no serial promotions in short period of time) as records of governing would be judged. The superiors will be held accountable for the corruption of their underlings.
    2. Regular and random audits to determine hidden accounts and assets. Streamline bureaucracy and avoid extravagances such as limit the number and cost of vehicles and travels.
    3. Anti-corruption hot lines for tips on corruption and investigation.
    4. Revive some of Mao’s policies on “Serve the People”, publicizing model officials and workers.
    I suspect it will be a long campaign and don’t expect instant results, after all it took 35 years to built all those corrupt practices which probably some were ingrained for thousands of years. I also think they should adopt some of the Western methods to reduce the chances of corruption like raising base pay and per-diem for traveling rather than impose on the units when doing inspection tours.

    As for U.S. the corruptions are more subtle and more difficult to eradicate. The cash bribery on lower levels are regularly prosecuted, but higher level favor for campaign contributions and revolving policies of private to governmental jobs are impossible to change. Those limits for lobbying jobs after governmental service are a joke. The financial reform bill with Volcker’s rule still awaits implementation. The stagnant social mobility in U.S. contrasts with China surging income even though the income inequality need to be addressed in China. In essence the U.S. with both parties and the antiquated electoral rules favor the plutocracy and barring a revolution will continue to stagger on.

  2. Black Pheonix
    January 21st, 2014 at 07:34 | #2

    “whereas the majority of Americans who felt they’ve had to unjustly hand over money to someone have no idea why they’re doing so, or what they should get in return when they do so.”

    The Chinese pay “bribes” for very specific goals, which makes it more predictable and transparent, as regular cost of transactions. I.e. you “pay for points/ wins”.

    The Americans pay for non-specific “bribes”. Which makes it more specifically to maintain “Guanxi”, and also more likely to promote Classism. Meaning, the “bribes” are not cost of transactions, but rather cost of class entry (cost of barrier), i.e. you “pay to play/access” (but no guarantee of points/wins).

    The US form of corruption is actually very bad in process. “Pay to play” is very prevalent in US society, and it decreases competition and fairness. Even Walmart has “pay to play” for shelf spaces. And you have to pay to get access to even talk to a politician.

    **
    “Even though the Chinese government is supposed to be an “authoritarian dictatorship” with little to no accountability to its citizens, the Chinese people actually have relatively more confidence in their own government to fight corruption (even if opinions are very much mixed); whereas the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” – one that’s supposedly far more accountable and accessible – inspires far less confidence in its ability to handle corruption.”

    US form of democracy means most of time, NOBODY gets what they want.

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    March 19th, 2014 at 23:36 | #3

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