Home > Analysis, Opinion, politics > Conversation with a Chinese auto-worker on fighting graft

Conversation with a Chinese auto-worker on fighting graft

While taking a river boat cruise from Guilin down to Yangshuo yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow traveler; in fact, a Chinese auto-worker who is from Nanjing.  I asked him about Nanjing’s development, expecting him to tell me about the city’s robust growth as in other tier 1 cities.  Bear in mind that Nanjing was a capital city in China’s past, so there is a level of expectation that the city excels given this history.

His biggest complaint was that he thought various city services were not being managed well. The specific example he used was that Nanjing is not as clean as some of the bigger cities. The same case for smaller ones that he has seen. He believed the mismanagement at Nanjing was due to graft; government departments installing lesser skilled and lesser inspired officials due to 关系 (guangxi).

I first asked him what he thought was the best way to combat this situation. He thought about it a bit and then said the government needs to be more “严格,” or strict. I agreed with him, and said that educating government employees on what constitutes conflict of interest and spelling out in black and white terms what specifically constitutes graft will go a long way.

There are some other important factors too.

First of all, capitalism and brutal competition will eat away at graft. If two companies are competing with each other, no matter how good the CEO’s guangxi’s are, lacking other requisite skills will cause the company to lose. As competition increases, whatever the position is, skill will need to be matched.

Having the right skills match a given position equals reduction in graft, and it is as simple as that. State owned enterprises will have this effect on them.

Cities and provinces compete with one another, though they are not as cut-throat as between corporations in any given industry.

Another point I reminded this auto-worker was that in 2008, China instituted transparency laws. This meant the media or citizens are entitled to certain information any department must provide. Given a few decades, this culture of transparency will eventually get established.

A legal (lawsuit) culture will need to be established before a society resorts to the justice system to settle disputes. Before that culture is in place, people resort to guangxi and bribe the highest authority they can find to help them win. It is a messy mixture, but the trend is towards the former.

In order to get local governments to release information and comply with the transparency laws, more and more ordinary citizens (and media) will need to sue various government departments and win. For a society to become bold enough to do this, the general legal (lawsuit) culture must be strong enough first.

I went on to explain that China presently have only about 1 legal professional serving 9000 citizens. Even if a citizen or a media wanting to sue the government over releasing certain information, there is no available lawyer to take up the case. In comparison, the U.S. has a legal professional serving 300 citizens.

He argued, as long as there is priority on economic growth, government organizations can have very big leeways, even when it comes to obeying laws. I agreed with him on that observation. However, over time, the quality of that growth will be demanded from the central government. We are seeing that more and more now. For example, Wen Jiabao recently announced the capping of GDP growth to 7.5%.

That quality will have to include many factors the people care about. Examples include income disparity and quality of service provided by the government.

We both thought a society can probably never completely rid off of graft. He seem satisfied China is moving in the right direction.

We both laughed at the fact that the Chinese people have been “patient.” I said to him that the people should wait 50 more years on this one. I also suggested to him steering his new grand-child towards law. He laughed.

Finally, I said, don’t worry, lawyers are needed by corporations too, in contracts, patents, and other areas. They need not always be suing the government. 😉

We both laughed.

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  1. April 8th, 2011 at 06:29 | #1

    “Finally, I said, don’t worry, lawyers are needed by corporations too, in contracts, patents, and other areas. They need not always be suing the government.”

    The government will also need more lawyers too in the future, to tweak, explain, and make laws that improve over time.

    Western governments are not more efficient because they have lawyers suing them, but rather they have lawyers defending them in public and in the courts.

    Western governments are the biggest employers of lawyers (and lawyer lobbyists) in the world.

    Chinese government will need lawyers too.

  2. TonyP4
    April 8th, 2011 at 14:17 | #2

    Lawyers are good for many to maintain the peace of a society. However, in US many steal from the poor and give to the rich. They help the rich to suppress the poor in the name of law and order. All the lawsuits make our drugs, health care… too expensive. We should limit the number of lawsuits by requiring the losers of the lawsuits to pay expenses as in HK and EU and limit the claims.

    If you need examples, here they are:

    The lawsuit defending OJ (could be settled by a bullet costing pennies).
    McDonald’s hot coffee spill (the jury did not know the society eventually bear the cost).
    The case of the Korean laundry.
    The hesitation of a doctor trying to save you when you fall in the street (his insurance does not allow him to save you)

    I rest my case.

    Hope China is moving up in the legal area, but not too close to the ridiculous stage of US.

    The prostitutes are rated above politicians and lawyers as a job. They’re honest (sometimes they make you think you’re better, from my observation only) and contribute more to the society esp. in the imbalance ratio of male/female in China. They both ask for cash, pay in advance, and under the table, haha.

    Sorry to offend all the lawyers in this board. I just speak the truth and nothing but the truth.

  3. April 8th, 2011 at 17:27 | #3


    Interesting bit of info. Never thought of it that way. There is a bit of a catch-22; the more the government screws up, the more tax money it will spend to defend itself.


    LOL. How personal was your “observation?”

    Agreed. Too many frivolous lawsuits undermines the purpose of law. Lawyers can be viewed as tools. Good governments are supposed to help put things in balance.

  4. April 9th, 2011 at 01:37 | #4

    Speaking as someone reasonably familiar with Nanjing, I would not say that the level of corruption in that city is particularly high compared to other cities of comparable size in mainland China. The CCP officials I came into contact seemed as corrupt (accepting bribes, bribing others, fiddling expenses, misappropriating public funds, etc.) as the one I came into contact with in Shenzhen and Shanghai.

    I’m sure the Nanjinger you spoke to was somewhat bemused to be told that he should be patient for meaningful reform which might only arrive after he retires by someone who left China for the US and is now, I presume, a US citizen.

  5. April 9th, 2011 at 10:50 | #5


    You can only imagine how much weight the perspective of this Chinese American has with the ordinary Chinese.

    Dig deep inside you. If you only care about toppling the CCP, and the plight of the ordinary Chinese people mean little to you, then there-in lies the limit of your imagination. To be fair, I have seen many Westerners who are capable of demonstrating the latter. I don’t think I have ever seen such from you.

    The Nanjinger in fact understands what this patience means with all the nuance that goes with it.

  6. April 9th, 2011 at 11:13 | #6

    @YinYang – Since you met the man in question, I must bow to your description of him. However, I have known many other Nanjingers whose views of the CCP were not so kind nor so patient as yours. Some of them were even communist party members.

    I found much patriotism in Nanjing, as well a elsewhere in China, and this, as distinct from my-country-right-or-wrong nationalism, is a commendable virtue. However, whilst there was much love of country, I found little love for the party, or its ideology. Yes, certain figures on whom propaganda fixates are held in affection, but not the party itself.

    As for whom my sympathy lies with, it lies first with my friends and loved ones, among which I am fortunate to count the friends I made whilst in China. I would not ask any of them to put up with something that I would not put up with.

  7. April 9th, 2011 at 17:59 | #7


    I know of people who withdrew from the CCP too. In fact, there are many more people who disagree with the party’s strategy on moving the country forward. Still, there are those like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei who are determined anti-government ‘dissidents.’

    This kind of situation is hardly unique to China. Every country has a mix bag in their population in terms of agreement/disagreement with the government.

    We all know that one of the biggest problems in China is corruption. Everyone knows that.

    If you have ideas on how China combat this situation more effectively, I think you will find tons of open ears.

    What I am truly surprised is that you are capable to discussing ideology with the Chinese.

    One or two years of half-assed Chinese immersion get you very little.

    I won’t be surprised if you hear about corruption a lot. In fact that was a topic of discussion with some friends yesterday at dinner. The issue is openly discussed by the public and equally openly despised.

  8. April 9th, 2011 at 18:08 | #8

    I should also add what I think is incredibly amazing in a country like the U.S. is that the public is not as upset about the lobbyists. That is institutionalized corruption. The population seems to be so drugged on that issue.

  9. W. Tseng
    April 10th, 2011 at 02:36 | #9

    I’ve read a many of your comments & they’re good. What kind of business are you in that puts you in contact with so many unscrupulous/avaricious characters in China? I live & do business in China for over 20 years & have offices all over (including Nanjing in 2001 for 2 years). But before we started, 9 out of 10 people we consulted cautioned about corruption. We asked whether they have personally experienced it & the answers were invariably in the negative. Well it turns out that we’ve never had the need to grease any palms. But I guess it depends on the business & the people one meets. I am not a communist & have no political affiliations. But I like the situation now & the direction the nation is taking – communist or whatever. Looking at the benefits from the various colour revolutions, I wonder whether the Iraqis, Libyans etc wouldn’t now prefer their barbaric dictatorial pre-revolution days to the mayhem, destitution & foreign armies that is bombing their country back into the middle ages – all in the name of freedom & democracy.

  10. April 10th, 2011 at 03:25 | #10

    @YinYang – I guess I should say that I lived in Mainland China from early 2003 to late 2007, and visited a few times since. Whether these five years were “half-assed” or not is another question.

    @Tseng – The corrupt officials I knew in Nanjing were acquaintances – friends-of-friends in the main. Here are the ones I remember best:

    One was involved in the expropriation of farmer’s land through his work in the government. He received his job due to his father’s connections, who never paid for a single meal out of his own pocket, used government connections and bribes to get multiple low-interest loans to buy property (some on land which he was involved in expropriating) to rent out and thus pad his income, as well as being involved in accepting bribes from developers.

    Another was involved in telecoms. He and his department were paid large bribes by the PSB to extract SMS data for certain telephone numbers. He did not know what this was done for, but since it was not done using a warrant or some-such, he believed, based on the people whose data was extracted, that it was being used either for extortion or political advantage.

    There was one instance of corruption that came to my mind particularly after the 2008 Wenchuan quake. One of the universities being constructed at the Xianlin development site, where, even during construction, stalactite-like formations of rust could be seen forming around cracks in concrete beams, and the beams themselves could be seen to sag. I was clear that the materials being used in the construction were of extremely poor quality and the structure of the building was unsound. The man in charge of purchasing the materials for the project was latter reportedly arrested on corruption charges and, I’m told, executed – but only once it became obvious to the naked eye that the wrong materials had been used. Had the building otherwise looked OK, he likely would never have come to any harm.

  11. TonyP4
    April 10th, 2011 at 05:54 | #11

    Nanjing is a Tier II city with a lot of jealousy of the huge investment in BJ and SH with Olympics and Expo respectively. It is a connection of the high speed rail, but most international flights go to above two cities.

    China’s capital was moved from Nanjing to BJ during Ming. I believe Nanjing is a better site and away from northern invaders than BJ. The relocation and building the Forbidden City used up a lot of resources and partly caused the downfall of Ming – Cheng Ho’s expensive expeditions did not help.

    You understand the country more by talking to the local folks. The largest museum of Dr. Sun is in Nanjing.

    Most corruption starts with little gifts, then cash, then more cash… Corruption = rich folks + folks with power. You can call it ‘connection’. It could be the #1 problem. Pollution is #2 and the ‘connection’ could warn the business folks the state inspectors are coming. Hence, they’re related. Legal profession in China is still at its infancy. Last generation most lawyers and judges are members of CCP and most do not have adequate training.

    Quilan is a beautiful city. I visited it 25 years ago. It only had one western hotel, one local (with the fancy stones) that we stayed and one Dim Sum restaurant invested by HK folks. At that time, we ate rice that were 2-3 years old, but the home-made noodles were very tasty. Will visit it again. For some strange reasons, ladies are more beautiful in cities with beautiful landscape and water. Any hints?

  12. raventhorn2000
    April 10th, 2011 at 10:04 | #12

    Friend of friend,

    I live in DC. Jack Abramoff. Enough said about “visible” corruptions in politics.


    Honestly, who worries about invisible corruption in this world?

  13. raventhorn2000
    April 10th, 2011 at 10:16 | #13

    BY the way, I highly recommend the movie “Casino Jack”, showing the political wheel greasing that goes on in US.

    And how the “democracy” backstabbed Abramoff, as a scapegoat.

    *I would actually say that more “democracy” is the cause of corruption in China, as more people have more money, more they want to be “unregulated” to do business, so they bribe some officials to look the other way.

    That’s certainly how it all led to the BP oil spill in US.

    Source of bribery, is not the government itself, but always the businesses that want to bypass laws.

  14. April 29th, 2011 at 08:18 | #14

    That’s certainly how it all led to the BP oil spill in US.

    Source of bribery, is not the government itself, but always the businesses that want to bypass laws.

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