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.