Today's date:
Winter 2007

The Locusts of Corruption

Wei Jingsheng, China’s most famous dissident, was imprisoned for 181/2 years for his writings on Democracy Wall. He was expelled from China in 1997 and now lives in exile in the United States.

Washington — Those both inside and outside of China concerned about the Chinese democracy movement should pay close attention to ongoing events in Taiwan, especially the popular anti-corruption movement that has emerged there in recent months.

Though Taiwan has long been recognized as one of the “four dragons” of Asian economic development (along with Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea), the democracy it has been on paper since World War II took longer to realize and is only now fully flowering.

Though the Chinese government uses its control of the media to inflame nationalist sentiment in China against what they call “a renegade state,” the very existence of Taiwan’s political and economic openness offers a sharp challenge to Beijing. In truth, the worry is not so much about national unity in the age of globalization as about any perception that might take root among its own public that Taiwan’s path to democratization is a model for China itself, and thus a terminal threat to the rule of the Communist Party.

The recent anti-corruption movement in Taiwan is a perfect example of the challenge that China fears. The purpose of this citizens’ movement is to protect Taiwan’s hard-won democracy by holding political leaders to account for their conduct. Taiwan’s citizens understand by now that the formalities of democratic governance—competitive elections, transfer of power and the rule of law—must be invigorated by an active democratic culture in which citizens at all layers of society remain aware and vigilant. Otherwise, institutions will tend over time to atrophy and give way to autocracy. Then government of the people and for the people becomes government for the powerful; the rule of law becomes the “rule by law” of those in power who are lining their pockets at the people’s expense.

It is in this light that we should compare the ongoing fights against corruption today in Taiwan and China.

There are people who say that there is no difference between democratic and non-democratic countries because there are corrupted officials everywhere. This attitude confuses black and white.

In the first instance, since there are no checks whatsoever on non-democratic power, the scale of corruption is of a different order. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s wife has been accused of trading her influence for a few million yuan worth of jewelry, while his son-in-law is to be tried for tens of millions of yuan in illegal payments. In Mainland China, that is the petty level of corruption of a county official!

Yet, utilizing their right to mobilize to “pull the emperor off his horse,” the citizens of Taiwan have taken to the streets to demand accountability and change. Regardless of whether they are from the “blue camp,” which wants unification with China, or the “green camp,” which wants independence, they are united in their anti-corruption stance.

In Mainland China, it is a totally different scenario. It is commonly accepted that the relatives of current and former Communist Party officials have accumulated billions in payoffs or kickbacks from land development schemes or privatization of state companies. At the lower levels, local peasants or townspeople may complain about their land being sold from beneath them, or even once in a while demonstrate, in which case they are brutally suppressed in the name of “keeping order” by the same officials stealing them blind.

As citizens without rights, they have no means to hold officials accountable in a one-party dictatorship. No one needs to be reminded that the Tiananmen movement of 1989, which started as an anti-corruption campaign, was cruelly crushed by tanks and machine guns.

With no means of legal recourse and facing the threat of a violent crackdown, people have no choice but to tolerate official corruption, which abounds without constraint. The result is worse than natural catastrophe: The wealth of the Chinese people earned through back-breaking labor in the factories and fields of the global economy is eaten up as if by locusts. Without democracy, they are defenseless against the predators of officialdom.

It is with this jaded eye that most Chinese view the current “anti-corruption” campaign that removed the Shanghai Communist Party chief, Chen Liang Yu, for using the city’s pension funds in development schemes for his cronies.

When people see the words “anti-corruption,” they read “power struggle.” As President Hu Jintao consolidates his power, he must remove the old guard that was loyal to the former leader, Jiang Zemin, in his power base, Shanghai. The charge of corruption is simply the best popular excuse for purging someone from office, and it is used now, though Chen’s dealings have been known for years.

Applaud this symbolic move as they might, people also know that the arrest of this man and a few of his comrades in commerce doesn’t even reach 1 percent of the total of the locusts of corruption eating the people’s wealth.

Anti-corruption campaigns from the top of a one-party system only amount to trimming tree branches that will grow back later, perhaps even fuller, under another regime of power. Corruption must be attacked at its roots. And that requires an active democratic culture, as we see in the streets of Taiwan today.

These contrasts in the struggle against corruption are one more reason to argue that, for the well being of all Chinese, any unification between Taiwan and China should only take place when they share democratization. The time for feudal-era annexations of free peoples has long passed. It was the peaceful democratic revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe, after all, that enabled the construction of the common European home today with its common currency and expanding internal markets. Why should it be any different among divided Chinese?

Clearly, the issue of corruption is the trigger point for political change in China. That puts Taiwan’s example of democracy at the heart of China’s future course.