China, Corruption, and the Rise of Weibo

September 7th, 2011

Corruption costs China’s economy a pretty penny. A report from China’s own central bank estimates that “up to 18,000 corrupt officials and employees of state-owned enterprises” have absconded with 800 billion yuan, or $123 billion, of state money since the 1990s. In a recent speech given to celebrate China’s Communist Party’s nineteenth anniversary, President Hu Jintao specifically addressed the importance of “rampant corruption” and the impetus to create a “clean government.” And Minxin Pei, a former scholar for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, estimates that China’s government loses as much as 10% of government spending in kickbacks and corruption, calling it “one of the most serious threats to the nation’s future economic and political stability.”

I’ve written before about one of China’s (wrongheaded) approaches to tackling corruption: the death penalty. The country frequently—and publicly—executes high-level and mid-level officials for convictions of corruption; sentences that are often met with public cheers. Recently, Chinahas executed the Chief of the State Food and Drug Administration; the head of the Municipal Judicial Bureau of Chongqing City; and the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. All of the officials had one crime in common: taking bribes. 

Chinais, in fact, the believed global leader in executions for corruption officials (although we can’t be certain, as China’s statistics on court-ordered executions are not in the public record), yet corruption still runs rampant. Why? Because corruption in Chinais systematic—it is the rule, not the exception. According to the Chinese professor Hu Xing Do, 99% of corrupt Chinese officials are never caught. Even with exorbitant penalties for those who are caught, enforcement is not consistent enough to dissuade behavior.

China’s (official) extreme reaction is also met by another (personal) one. Some Chinese bloggers have noted that there is an alarmingly high rate of suicide amongst Chinese officials, particularly those involved in allegations of corruption. This tragic trend will contribute about as much to an improvement inChina’s corruption as the death penalty. That is to say, not at all.

Here’s a development that might help, though. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the policy ofChina’s government.

Two weeks ago an anti-corruption official, Xie Yexin, was found dead in his office. Early this week, local authorities ruled his death a suicide, ending any further investigation into the case. But Xie’s family isn’t convinced. For one, Xie died from multiple stab wounds—eleven to be exact—to the chest, neck, abdomen, and both wrists. The weapon—a knife—was later found in Xie’s office wrapped in tissue paper. Xie’s family has (rightfully) argued that it is unlikely anyone could commit suicide by stabbing himself 11 times with a knife wrapped in tissue.

Xie’s death is tragedy and for the sake of his memory and his family, the investigation of his death should continue until the truth is found. But the response to his death by those outside his family has also been inspiring and, in a way, it is a development that may truly helpChinain its fight against corruption.

I’m talking about blogs.

In the wake of Xie’s death, tens of thousands of internet users have posted questions, remarks, and condemnations over the investigation. As AFP has noted, “by Friday, Xie’s death was the third most talked-about subject on the popular news site, while the same company’s Weibo—China’s answer to Twitter—had more than 130,000 comments on the subject.”Weibo,China’s largest microblogging site, has over 200 million users.

As we are learning in India, it may require massive, public pressure to begin to solve the corruption problem—particularly on the lower levels. The general Chinese population interested in participating in a corruption solution have some serious road blocks between them and an ability to exert true public pressure—most notably China’s information and online-sharing controls. But with the rise of Weibos this may change.

China already has the world’s largest population of internet users. If just a small subset of this group wants to—and is able to—question the culture of corruption in China and look for potential solution…well…I think they might just get what they want.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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