Political Corruption: In and beyond the Nation State

By Robert Harris | Go to book overview

3

National political corruption (I): the People’s Republic of China

In 1994, in the province of Hubei, 20 percent of the cotton harvest was lost because the district government had issued a decree that required everyone to buy a certain brand of substandard pesticide, which was produced by a company owned by the local party secretary…A peasant sent a letter of thanks to the party secretary because his wife, after a violent quarrel, had tried to commit suicide by drinking the stuff, but had survived because it was a harmless imitation.

(van Kemenade 1997:12)

The experience of corruption in what is now the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has deep historical roots (Lau and Lee 1978), though there are differences among scholars as to the relationship among corruption, culture and (particularly Qing Dynasty) political administration (Yang 1994; Leonard 2001). China’s success over the centuries in resisting western cultural influence means that its institutions of government developed quite differently from those exported to the colonies by the European powers. Checks and balances, the separation of powers, the concept of natural law, accountable democratic government and the ethos of public service had no place in the Chinese imperial tradition. Political accountability through independent audit was therefore inconceivable, and to this day, in spite of advances made since the mid-1990s, neither culturally nor organizationally is the idea of a national leader’s decisions being subject to judicial review at all plausible.

Following the 1949 Revolution, in the absence of any civil sphere the National People’s Congress (NPC), and not the judiciary, is at least formally the ultimate judicial as well as constitutional arbiter. The status of judges remains low: fewer than 10 per cent of them have a university degree, and graduates are disproportionately located in urban areas. There is widespread nepotism in appointments, and, in spite of some reform attempts, judicial misconduct remains common both through personal predation, made possible by the variable control of self-interested judicial discretion (Woo 2000),

-65-

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