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  • China’s Surge of Corruption
  • Michael Johnston (bio) and Yufan Hao (bio)

The recent petitions by 12 Chinese intellectuals and by 45 prominent scientists calling for tolerance, democratic reforms, and action against official corruption in China are not only courageous political statements. They illuminate a fundamental dilemma in contemporary China: how to define legitimate relationships and boundaries between personal interests and official power in a setting where party-state dominance has hindered the development of an autonomous civil society.

The petitions—issued in February and May of 1995—denounce corruption and its effects on Chinese society and values, portraying the problems as systemic in both origins and implications. “Corruption,” says the February petition, “in the form of trading power for money, has become the principal affliction causing great public resentment and capable of leading to social upheaval.” One signer added that “the party should take to heart the lesson of 1989 on the necessity of having a dialogue with society.” The petition argues that “we must not rely merely on the top-down reforms that have been put forward by the ruling party; we must also rely on the bottom-up reforms that have been put forward by civil political powers.” 1 The May petition states that “corruption has become a wind blowing through our country.” While advocating punishment for those involved, it adds that “it must be recognized that without the supervision of democracy, especially the supervision provided by independent public opinion, corruption cannot be eliminated.” 2

Neither markets nor corruption is new to China. Officials’ values were a concern to Confucius, and to emperors through the centuries. The [End Page 80] republican governments of the early twentieth century, which had market economies, were weakened politically and militarily by corruption. Corruption was rampant under the Kuomintang regime, and contributed to its fall in 1949. The PRC, too, has always experienced the problem, but in prereform days party-state domination kept it within limits. Since 1978, however, economic liberalization has made way for new and controversial connections between wealth and power. In 1989, corruption issues ranked high among the democracy movement’s grievances, and in the 1990s, corruption and a consciousness of it have spread into every corner of society, threatening social and political stability.

Corruption has often been a useful issue for critics of unresponsive or repressive regimes. But its significance in China is especially profound. We have discussed the causes of China’s surge of corruption, and its links to economic reforms, in some detail elsewhere. 3 Here we seek to go deeper, considering the way in which the prereform system left China vulnerable to corruption once reforms began, and examining the functions (and defining features) of a viable civil society. We argue that economic reforms unleashed market forces in a nation so dominated by the party-state that basic boundaries between markets and official power were weak or nonexistent. At one level, this has made for both an increase in corruption and confusion about the meanings of the term. At another level, it has produced the political crisis signified by the dissidents’ petitions. The examples of other market-oriented societies suggest that the boundaries and distinctions essential to workable rules, as well as the political capacity to address corruption issues, are forged through political contention among private interests, and between them and ruling elites. This depends, in turn, on the existence of a civil society with the capacity—and opportunities—to articulate views other than those of the leadership. China’s strategy of pursuing economic but not political reform has left it vulnerable to corruption both real and perceived, yet unable to address the issue in any but repressive ways. The crisis may have been preempted for a time by the events at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, but it is accelerating once again.

One of the most intractable problems in the literature on corruption has been defining the concept. One school contends that definitions based on laws and formal rules are best by virtue of their relative precision and stability. Critics reply that at times the law enjoys little legitimacy, that legalistic conceptions of corruption miss the question of its social and political significance, and...

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pp. 80-94
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