Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong

By Thornton, Patricia M. | The China Journal, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong


Thornton, Patricia M., The China Journal


Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong, by Melanie Manion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. xii + 283 pp. US$49.95 (hardcover).

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, syndicated corruption was endemic within Hong Kong's police force. Yet within little more than a decade, police corruption had been virtually eradicated, and Hong Kong has since ranked among the "cleanest" governments in the world, on a par with many established liberal democracies. By contrast, the problem of corruption has emerged as one of the most persistent and troubling features of the reform era in the People's Republic, despite the considerable attention it has received from a regime that has achieved notable successes in other areas. Manion's original study compares these two cases-one representing the possibility of swift and measurable success in controlling corruption, the other epitomizing the difficulties inherent in the taskin an attempt to explain these divergent outcomes.

Manion's widely cited 1996 article by the same title, published in the Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, insightfully applied game theory to the problem of bribery in enterprise-licensing in Chinese government bureaus. This book significantly broadens her earlier research both in scope and depth, and elaborates her earlier findings on the importance of institutional design in controlling behavior. The book also shares with its predecessor an empirical approach to the study of corruption, but contains a wealth of new data of various types, much of which is qualitative, and considers the respective and contrasting roles of enforcement agencies, incentive structures and constitutional designs in her selected cases.

According to Manion, "clean" and "corrupt" systems represent two stable but opposite frequency-dependent equilibria that serve to perpetuate existing norms of bureaucratic behavior. In systems in which corruption is either endemic or anomalous, structural considerations tend to coordinate the choices and behaviors of a critical mass of actors within the system to support the prevailing norm. While no single individual has the capacity to shift the equilibrium of the system as a whole, an unstable tipping point does exist at which the numbers of actors choosing to behave in a particular manner can alter the dynamics of the system as a whole. In systems in which corruption is endemic, changes in enforcement strategies, institutional design and public education can all facilitate a shift away from corrupt practices; in systems already close to the "tipping point", relatively minor interventions or exogenous changes can have a substantial impact on the system as a whole.

Manion credits the 1974 establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and its intensive and highly publicized methods of investigation and enforcement, with Hong Kong's momentous shift in favor of "clean" governance in the mid-1970s. …

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