The Fate of Corruption in China

August 23rd, 2011

“Art is a revolt against fate.”

It was André Malraux, a French adventurer who traveled China in the 1930s, who said that. Malraux believed art is more than just a source of “aesthetic pleasure.” His most enduring concept was “le musée imaginaire” or “the museum without walls”, which asserted that art could be more powerful as an experience outside the traditional confines of museums.

At the moment China is headed down a crash course with its own fate.

China has had massive problems with bribery, corruption, and illicit financial flows for years. In fact illicit outflows from the People’s Republic of China have ranged from an annual US$169 billion in 2000 to US$344 billion in 2008. The country is also, by far, the largest transmitter of illicit financial flows in the developing world. And in case it’s not already obvious, let me clarify that these numbers are unbelievably large. For a point of comparison, the PRC’s stock of total external debt in 2008 was $378 billion, just slightly greater than its total illicit outflows in that year alone.

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.”

Left unchecked, China’s corruption problem will derail the nation’s fairytale rise to economic development and progress.

One Chinese artist, Zhang Bingjian, believes he can revolt against his country’s fate with art. Zhang, along with 20 other artists, has created an art installation composed of portraits of (convicted) corrupt Chinese officials. Nicknamed the Corruption Hall of Fame, the group so far has drawn 1,200 portraits, every one in pink—the color of the 100 yuan bill. On each portrait, the artists print a serial number, the official’s name, his title, his crime, and the sentence he received.

Zhang says his drive to create this piece comes from a “responsibility to raise my voice, raise questions and record history…The idea is to make people think, why is this happening in China? Why do so many people do it? How do we stop it?”

While Zhang’s initiative has challenges—so far no galleries have expressed interest in his work—he represents a small, but desperately needed group of people who recognize the need for change in China. The country’s recent initiatives to combat bribery and other forms of corruption have been a good start. But without serious public pressure, I doubt the Chinese government will have a true incentive to reform its ways.

As Zhang has put it: “We don’t know yet whether this project will have a happy or a tragic ending.”

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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