China has spent the better part of the past four decades waging an on-again, off-again battle against corruption. Over the years, punishments for those deemed to have taken bribes or acted improperly have ranged from expulsion from the Communist Party of China (CPC) to more severe sentences like prison terms or even death.
The 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012 signaled that the country’s anti-corruption campaign was once again entering an “on-again” phase. Data published by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate — the country’s highest body responsible for prosecution — shows that between 2013 and 2017, it handled an average of roughly 51,800 corruption cases a year — an increase of 16.4 percent over the previous five-year period.
Aside from fiscal concerns — the total cost of corruption-related activities between 2013 and 2017 is estimated to be more than 55.3 billion yuan ($8 billion) — anti-corruption authorities’ increased urgency may have been a reaction to growing public frustration with corrupt officials. According to the 2013 China General Social Survey (CGSS) — conducted in the early days of the anti-corruption campaign — 71.5 percent of those polled had rated corruption as either a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
As for the efficacy of the government’s anti-corruption and clean-up campaigns, twice as many people had responded that the campaigns were “totally ineffective” as had those that said they were “extremely effective.”
This data indicates why the government thought it so necessary to try and repair its image. It may have been going about it the wrong way, however. A deeper look into the CGSS data from 2013 suggests that a focus on underlying economic problems may be a better means of assuaging the public than high-profile arrests or televised trials.
Generally speaking, there are three main schools of thought on what influences ordinary citizens’ perceptions on corruption, regardless of their country. The first suggests that an individual’s views on corruption are determined by their political values and personality. For example, researchers have found that the more critically minded, politically engaged, or ideologically independent a person is, the more likely they are to consider the government corrupt and current government anti-corruption efforts inadequate.
The second view is that awareness of, and discontent with corruption depends on a person’s level of media engagement. Those who read more news from online or independent media sources are typically more likely to know about corruption-related problems and thus be less satisfied with the state’s ongoing inability to curb them.
The third and most commonly cited argument is that public perceptions of corruption and anti-corruption campaigns are influenced by people’s rational assessment of their own interests — that is, as long as things are going well, the public is more willing to forgive corrupt behavior from the state. According to this argument, if the economy is growing rapidly — and their own economic positions are rising along with it — citizens won’t complain as much about corruption and will attach less importance to stopping it. During times of economic contraction or slower growth, on the other hand, official misconduct is more likely to trigger public anger.
All three of these models hold true for China. Yet my research suggests that there is another, even more crucial factor that influences public perceptions of corruption. It has significant implications for the Party and government as they attempt to rebuild public trust — that is, the growing sense that Chinese society has become fundamentally unequal. The CGSS data suggests that a person’s sense of social inequality — as measured through their perceptions of overall social conditions, the income gap, and wealth distribution — is even more closely correlated with their views on corruption than is their own personal economic status.
China’s development in the post-reform and opening-up period has seen the gap between rich and poor steadily widen. Though it is difficult to find reliable and up-to-date statistics, a 2016 report from Peking University pegged the country’s Gini coefficient — a common, if imperfect measure for income inequality — at 0.49 in 2012, up from roughly 0.3 in the 1980s. Anything above 0.4 is considered by the World Bank to be indicative of severe income inequality. China’s property is even less equally distributed. In 2012, the top 1 percent of households controlled about one-third of China’s wealth — still less than the United States, but nevertheless extremely high. Even as some regions, groups, and individuals have grown rich, much of China remains mired in poverty.
Ordinary citizens are not blind to this fact. According to the same 2013 CGSS survey, when asked to rate the seriousness of the country’s wealth gap on a scale from 1 to 5 — with 1 representing a belief that the problem was not serious, and 5 representing that it was extremely serious — the average response was 3.89.
This matters because my research shows that the more unequal an individual believes society to be, the more likely they are to view the government as corrupt and its anti-corruption efforts as ineffective. This is true even when taking into account factors such as gender, education, age, geographic location, media use, and respect for authority.
I believe there are two reasons for this. First, there is a natural tendency to mentally link the existence of inequality with corruption by the elite. This line of thought maintains that if only officials were not so easily bought off or willing to tilt the scales in favor of themselves or their friends, then perhaps they would even the playing field, and the disadvantaged would be better off.
An awareness of inequality also makes people more sensitive to official privileges and their misuse — whether that misuse is real or merely perceived. In a society where real estate prices are rapidly rising beyond the means of ordinary citizens, health care is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and the retirement age may be pushed back, the public is more likely to resent official privileges — which include state-provided housing, excellent medical care in specialized hospitals, and a stable pension — and view them as symbols of a corrupt society.
What is particularly interesting about my findings is that they hold true regardless of a person’s own economic status. Even among people who have benefitted from the current system, the more aware they are of social inequality, the more likely they feel that the government need make greater efforts to curb corruption.
This accords with traditional Chinese philosophy. In a line from the Analects, Confucius notes the belief that those in power should be concerned less with poverty than with uneven distribution. To truly resolve public anxieties about corruption and corrupt officials, it is not enough to stage high-profile arrests and trials. We must first address the widespread belief that our society has grown increasingly polarized between the rich and the poor. Any attempt to tackle corruption that does not account for these feelings will never succeed in restoring the people’s faith in the government and its institutions.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Chen Wang/VCG)