Every so often you read a news article so revealing that it triggers this thought: I wonder if we’ll look back on that story in five years and say: “We should have seen this coming. That story was the warning sign.”
For me that article was a July 25 piece in the Washington Post about how jilted mistresses of corrupt Chinese government officials have become the country’s most important whistleblowers — turning to the Internet to expose the antics of senior bureaucrats. The Post detailed the case of a 26-year-old named Ji Yingnan (紀英男), who had been engaged to wed Fan Yue (范悅) — a deputy director at the State Administration of Archives — until she discovered that he had been married with a son the entire time they were together.
To get her revenge, Ji “has released hundreds of photos online that offer a rare window into the life of a Chinese central government official who — despite his modest salary — was apparently able to lavish his mistress” with no end of luxury items, the Post reported.
The first time “they went shopping, Ji said, the couple went to Prada and paid US$10,000 for a skirt, a purse and a scarf. A month after they met, Fan rented an apartment for them that cost US$1,500 a month and spent more than US$16,000 on bedsheets, home appliances, an Apple desktop and a laptop, according to Ji. Then he bought her a silver Audi A5, priced in the US at about US$40,000, she said... ‘He put cash into my purse every day,’ said Ji in a letter to the [Chinese] Communist Party complaining about Fan’s behavior.”
It gets better. The Post reported that “a well-known Chinese blogger who has posted Ji’s photos and videos on his Web site said he spoke with Fan last month. Fan told the blogger that he didn’t spend as much money as Ji claims, saying it was less than US$1.7 million but more than US$500,000. ‘This woman is not good. She is too greedy,’ the blogger, Zhu Ruifeng (朱瑞峰), said Fan told him.”
Oh, I see. It was less than US$1.7 million. That is good to know! This man is a senior bureaucrat in the Chinese state archives. What sort of illicit activity was he up to in the file rooms to earn that kind of cash? Every government has corruption, but China’s corruption is industrial strength. My colleague David Barbosa last year exposed how then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) mother, son, daughter, younger brother, wife and brother-in-law had collectively amassed US$2.7 billion in assets. However, when you see how much money a deputy archives director was able to amass — and how brazenly he spent it — you start to wonder and worry.
When I visited China in September last year, I wrote that I heard a new meme from Chinese businesspeople who I met: “Make your money and get out.”
More than ever, I heard a lack of confidence in the Chinese economic model. We should hope that China can make a stable transition from one-party communism to a more consensual, multiparty system — and a stable diversification of its low-wage, high-export, state-led command economy — the way Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore have done. Its huge savings will help.
The world can ill afford a chaotic transition in China. With the US stuck in slow growth, Europe mired in stagnation and the Arab world imploding, China has been a vital economic engine for the global economy. If China’s sagging growth and employment rates meet rising discontent with corruption by officials — trying to get their own while the getting is still good — we will not have a stable transition in China. And if one-sixth of humanity starts going through an unstable and uncertain political/economic transition, it will shake the world.
It would be great if Chinese reporters, bloggers, citizens groups and, yes, Internet-empowered mistresses could expose corruption in ways that help make that transition both necessary and possible. However, these virtuous civil society actors will only succeed if they find allies in the Communist Party, if they can empower those party cadres who understand the risk to stability, and to their party’s future, posed by runaway corruption.
The Ji and Fan story is very entertaining. However, if it is just the tip of an iceberg of corruption that destabilizes China, it should not be a laughing matter. How Chinese officials behave or misbehave not only affects the US — from the value of its currency to the level of interest rates to the quality of the air Americans breathe — it might be the biggest thing that affects the US outside of its own government.
There is reason for worry.
“The boldness that Chinese leaders have shown in growing their economy from a backwater into the world’s second-largest has not been matched, of course, in developing democratic institutions but more importantly in developing good and honest governance,” said Jeffrey Bader, US President Barack Obama’s former senior adviser on China and the author of Obama and China’s Rise.
However, if China’s leaders do not take on this issue, he added, “then there will be more corruption, more alienation of ordinary people and more questions about China’s stability. That would be bad news not only for China but for the US, whose future is intertwined with China’s.”