Uncle House, Brother Wristwatch, and Grandpa Wen: Can Corruption Undermine China? : The New Yorker
Blacking out the Times is beside the point. To understand the threat that corruption has come to pose to the Party, the Chinese need look no further than their own newspapers.
It is one of the curious facts of China today that the state press both marches in step with the Communist Party and also devotes much of its space to documenting acts of epic plunder and abuses of power. The latest scandal centers on an a man who has come to be known in China as “Uncle House.” He is an obscure fifty-six-year-old apparatchik named Cai Bin, a senior urban-management official and political commissar from the southern province of Guangdong who was sacked this week after investigators found that he had somehow acquired twenty-two homes, worth an estimated six million dollars. With an official salary of less than twenty-thousand dollars a year, Cai was found to be a prolific taker of bribes, according to the state press. Cai Bin’s many houses were initially turned up by Chinese Web users, who elevated the case into a national joke and left authorities with no choice but to take action.
Uncle House comes just a few weeks after “Brother Wristwatch,” a.k.a. Yang Dacai, the former head of the Work Safety Administration in the province of Shaanxi. He was fired after Web users noticed a photograph of him at the site of a deadly bus crash. The photo initially attracted criticism because he was smiling beside the wreckage, but the accusations swiftly evolved from callousness to corruption after people zoomed in on his watch, and compared it to other publicly available photos that showed Yang had a handsome collection of at least eleven ultra-high-end timepieces, including a five-thousand-dollar Montblanc and a ten-thousand-dollar Omega. (Yang maintained that he purchased them all with legally earned income.)
There is nothing inherently unique about the fact that China’s rise has been accompanied by enormous official theft. (In “Boss Rail,” a piece in the magazine last week, I examined the culture of corruption in China’s largest public-works project, as well as the corruption that shadowed America’s rise in the nineteenth century.) What is unique, however, and potentially harmful to political stability, is the nature of the corruption in China. In a new book, “The Double Paradox,” the sinologist Andrew Wedeman examines a raft of data on arrests, bribes, and prosecutions not only in China but in other countries with high rates of corruption such as Zaire, Nicaragua, and Haiti—as well as places with high growth such as Korea and Taiwan. “Although there is no good corruption,” Wedeman writes, “there is clearly bad and worse corruption: the corruption that has negative effects, and the corruption that can have potentially catastrophic effects.” The science of kleptocracy separates the behavior into two basic types: “developmental corruption” of the kind we see in Korea and Taiwan, which does not ultimately prevent the economy from recovering, and “degenerative corruption” of the kind that ruined the economies in Zaire and Haiti.