The worst kept secret in contemporary China is the role that corruption plays in the function and disfunction of public life. Take, for example, Zhang Shuguang, the former deputy chief of engineering for China’s Railway Ministry.
In 2011, at the time of his arrest, state media briefly reported that he had $2.8 billion stashed away in foreign bank accounts . The scale of Zhang’s avarice was grand, but it differed only in scale from the documented acts committed by thousands of other Chinese public officials every year. A few months after Zhang’s arrest, the People’s Bank of China (China’s Central Bank) posted a report –- subsequently deleted -– claiming that 16,000 to 18,000 public officials had fled China since the mid-1990s, taking with them $120 billion .
It goes on and on, much to the chagrin of most Chinese citizens, and at least some members of China’s leadership -- not least of whom is President Hu Jintao. In a much-noted July 2011 speech on the occasion of the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary, he stated, bluntly: “If corruption does not get solved effectively, the party will lose the people's trust and support .” It was a vague but suitably idealistic statement, and it seemed to speak for the Party -- until May 29, when a now-notorious editorial ran in the state-owned Global Times. Under the innocuous headline “Fighting Corruption is a Crucial Battle for Chinese Society,” it made a pragmatic, even sympathetic, case for turning a blind eye to corruption :
There is no way in any country to “root out” corruption. Most critical is containing it to a level acceptable to the public. And to do this is, for China, especially difficult.… The public must also understand … the objective fact and reality that China has no way of entirely suppressing corruption without sending the whole country into pain and confusion. Fighting corruption is a difficult task in China’s social development. But its victory relies at the same time on the elimination of other obstructions in other areas of battle. China can’t conceivably be in a situation where it is a country behind in all other areas, but where its officials are really clean. Even if that were possible, it would not be sustainable.
By mid-morning Tuesday, the Internet portal QQ.com had re-published the editorial in its entirety, but had changed the headline to something more likely to draw the attention of readers and, arguably, something a little more accurate: “Global Times: The Public Should Understand that China Must Permit Moderate Corruption .” For a Chinese public all-but-conditioned to the idea that corruption lubricates economies and civil society, this wasn’t news, necessarily, except for the fact that the opinion was voiced by a major state-owned paper.
The Global Times occupies a unique place in China’s media ecosystem. It is a the hyper-nationalist subsidiary to the demure People’s Daily, the self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Among its millions of readers and detractors (often the same folk), the Global Times isn’t viewed as speaking for the Party so much as speaking in support of the Party’s most conservative elements under the guise of objective news gathering (much like right-leaning Americans might view MSNBC’s programming).
Netizen comments on the editorial have been near-universally negative, with most comments tending to view it as self-serving (without necessarily mentioning who was being served) if not morally reprehensible. Meanwhile, “moderate” has become an all-purpose buzzword and modifier for any and all sorts of wrongdoing. “Moderate corruption,” wrote a microblogger in Guangdong province . “The next step is moderate murder.” In response to such comments, Hu Xujin, the editor of the Global Times and perhaps the most vilified man on China’s Internet , wrote several wounded posts noting -– correctly -– that QQ.com had changed his headline and sensationalized his paper’s sober editorial. He wanted, above all, an apology.
Enter Cao Lin, a young columnist for China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League, who has become the most prominent critic of Hu Xijin’s victimhood. This is not insignificant: The Communist Youth League is President Hu Jintao’s traditional power base, and the paper speaks for its mildly reformist tilt. Few other newspapers, much less writers, would have the gumption to take the debate to the microblogging site Sina Weibo: “When we talk about sensational headline writers, the Global Times has to reflect that that editorial is itself a work done by a sensational headline writer. Its key argument is ‘corruption can’t be fundamentally solved and the key is to control the people to the extent permitted’ … Putting an irrelevant title to a subject and using it to cover the article’s real meaning, that’s what we call a Sensational Headline Writer.”
On the topic of whether an apology is due to Hu and the Global Times, the Youth Daily commentator was similarly indignant : “The people of the entire nation should apologize to the Global Times thusly: I’m so very, very sorry but we cannot associate with you. We’ll defend to the death your right to say something, but we would rather die than agree with your point-of-view.”
Cao’s tweets were accompanied by an equally indignant editorial, signed by him, published last Thursday in China Youth Daily. He expanded his argument against what he characterized as a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion in favor of, in effect, accepting less when the people should be asking for more :
“If our anti-graft policies really created these misconceptions -- that they are not working for an anti-corruption system, that there is no zero tolerance attitude to crack down on and control corruption -- and instead ask the public to lower their expectations, accept moderate corruption so that everyone is deliriously happy, then our anti-corruption cause enters extremely dangerous territory.”
It is rare for the editorial page of one of China’s major newspapers to attack one of its counterparts in such blunt terms. It is even rarer for one editor to attack another so personally (in a post written for his personal blog, Cao claims that Hu accused him of “violating professional ethics” by attacking a fellow editor). But for either to happen on such a sensitive topic -– especially when the two papers and editors enjoy the patronage of powerful factions -– is rare and perhaps unprecedented. According to Cao’s blog, in fact, Hu actually complained that Cao had violated “professional ethics” by attacking a fellow journalist .
Was this a proxy war waged by editorial, between the stability-loving hawks who patronize the Global Times and the vaguely liberal, idealist faction represented by Hu and the Communist Youth League? It’s difficult to say, but what is certain is that China’s powerful, stability-minded censors were uninterested in seeing the state-owned fratricide continue. By last weekend, both editorials -– Cao’s signed piece and the unsigned editorial at Global Times -– had been deleted from their respective papers. After all, it’s one thing to have a discussion that rationalizes China’s failure to control corruption, but it’s another thing entirely to have one of China’s most important old-line newspapers accusing an offshoot of People’s Daily of committing cynical propaganda in the course of that rationalization. Nevertheless, despite the deletions, both editorials have been copied to other sites and continue to circulate and generate comments, as do the tweets generated by their authors.
Meanwhile, netizens continue searching for a means to define what, precisely, qualifies as “moderate corruption.” Li Jiayu, a well-known educational entrepreneur in Beijing, thinks he found it in the Des Moines, Iowa, school superintendent forced to resign over sending sexually explicit emails via a school district email account. “Our great Motherland allows such moderate corruption,” he tweeted. “The United States is too unkind.”
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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Adam Minter at email@example.com