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|
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|
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)|
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|
|2c:% of people that have paid a bribe to each of 9 institutions|
|Registry and permit services||9.80%||9.10%|
|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|
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|
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|
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.