Tue, Nov 27, 2007 - Page 8 News List

The price of Chinese corruption

By Richard Halloran

A compelling new report says that runaway corruption in China poses a lethal threat to the nation's economic development and "undermines the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party."

Evidence from official audits, press articles and law enforcement data, the report says, indicates that "corruption in China is both pervasive and costly."

Bribery, kickbacks, theft and fraud, particularly by government officials, are said to be rampant.

Pei Minxin (裴敏欣) wrote the report issued last month by the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, based in Washington. Pei is a political scientist educated at the Shanghai International Studies University. He earned his PhD at Harvard and his work has been widely published in the US.

The report asserts that corruption in China "has spillover effects beyond its borders" that hurt US, Japanese and other foreign investors.

"Illicit behavior by local officials could expose Western firms to potentially vast environmental, human rights and financial liabilities," the report says.

Public statements by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and other senior Chinese officials suggest that China's leaders are well aware of the widespread problem but have been unwilling to curb it.

The report says: "The odds of an average corrupt official going to jail are at most 3 out of 100, making corruption a high-return, low-risk activity."

If Hu comes down too hard on corruption, he risks losing support of the delegates at the recently held party Congress who elected him. Those delegates are drawn largely from party officials at the local and provincial level.

Pei is not alone in assessing corruption in China. George Zhibin Gu, an investment banker who was educated at Nanjing University and earned a doctorate at the University of Michigan, has suggested that corruption may destroy China's economy, which has been growing at 8 percent to 10 percent a year. In the West, a 3 percent growth rate is respectable.

Moreover, China's Xinhua news agency frequently details specific instances of corruption. Last week, the Chinese government was reported to have banned fire department officials from receiving sexual favors from companies seeking their protection.

Scrutinized through a wide-angle lens, corruption is just at the forefront of the internal ills that jeopardize China's economic and political strength. Unemployment and under-employment, in which a worker has only one or two days of work a week, may be over 25 percent. Paradoxically, China has begun to experience shortages of the skilled labor needed for its expanding industries. Economic progress has been uneven, with coastal cities leaving the rural interior far behind.

"Corruption in China is concentrated in the sectors with extensive state involvement," the Pei report says.

That includes construction of dams, roads and electrical grids. The sales of land or granting user rights are susceptible, as are financial services and heavily regulated industries.

"The absence of a competitive political process and a free press in China makes these high risk sectors even more susceptible to fraud, theft, kickbacks and bribery," the report says.

Pei cites a study done last year asserting that about half of those engaged in corruption were involved in infrastructure projects or land transactions.

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