Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Author: In China, 'everyone is guilty of corruption'

By Lijia Zhang, Special for CNN
updated 11:01 PM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
Police stand guard outside the court where disgraced politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison in September.
Police stand guard outside the court where disgraced politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison in September.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Everyone in China is guilty of corruption, says writer Lijia Zhang
  • Use of guanxi or connections part of everyday life
  • Businessmen say they can't survive unless they are corrupt
  • China needs to focus on rule of law not "rule of men"

Editor's note: Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of "Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China." She appears in the latest episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout, which examines the country's fight against corruption. For viewing times please click here.

Beijing (CNN) -- Another "tiger" has been caught. Last week, Ji Jianye, the mayor of my hometown Nanjing, a major city in eastern China, was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes worth about 20 million yuan ($3.3 million)

After taking power in March, President Xi Jinping launched a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, vowing to catch both tigers and flies -- big and small corrupt officials. China has seen plenty of such campaigns, arising and subsiding like summer storms.

But this one appears to be the most vigorous since China opened up; when corruption became rampant in the new market economy and officials started to trade power for financial gains.

Author and social commentator Lijia Zhang
Author and social commentator Lijia Zhang

Much as I appreciate our president's determination, his battle feels like an attempt to "put out a big fire with a glass of water," given how corruption has reached every corner of our society.

READ: Swatting flies: Beijing's fight to root out corruption

Chinese public opinion surveys identify corruption as the most hated social problem, yet everyone is also guilty of it.

Last year, when my father fell seriously ill, we took him to a decent hospital close by but were told the beds were fully occupied. As always, we turned to our guanxi -- our network of connections -- for help.

Fortunately, a relative, a not so senior but well-connected official, managed to secure a private room at the hospital, which is reserved for ranking leaders. In return, the relative agreed to get the son of the hospital director into the most desirable school in Nanjing.

Author: Corruption hurt Communist Party
On China: Reform
On China: Tigers and flies

I became aware the weight of guanxi shortly after I was thrust into adulthood: At 16 I was dragged out of the school to work at a military rocket factory.

Two months later, when Spring Festival came, my mother requested that I visit my boss' home with gifts she had prepared. Naive and embarrassed, I refused. Mother angrily predicted: "You'll never go far in life if you don't know how to la guanxi!" The verb la means to pull or to develop. Sure enough, I never got any promotion during my decade-long stint at the factory even though I acquired a degree in mechanical engineering.

READ: What China can learn from Hong Kong

For any Chinese businessman, guanxi is essential. Recently, I met up with a long-lost friend, with whom I marched in the Nanjing streets back in the spring of 1989 and shouted "Down With Corruption" -- one of the complaints that had sparked the unprecedented Tiananmen Square democratic movement.

More than 20 years later, this friend spends 90% of his time running his high-tech company. His youthful idealism has gone and his waistline has expanded considerably. With a ghost of a smile, he blames it on the excessive dining, drinking and occasional visits to prostitutes that are part of the tiresome game of guanxi. "Your business can't survive a day if you are not corrupt," he told me.

He has to smooth every step of his business with gifts or outright bribes: From obtaining the business license, to entertaining potential clients, to receiving 15% of the tax deduction that a high-tech company is entitled to. He estimates that 3% to 5 % of operating costs goes to guanxi.

Such practices drive entrepreneurs to seek senior officials as their patrons because politicians in China have the power to approve projects and allocate resources.

The relationship between the now disgraced politician Bo Xilai and businessmen Xu Ming, the founder of Dalian Shide Group, was typical of such patron-client relationships. Xu, a large man, allegedly fattened his pockets through his guanxi with the Bo family as he funded the family's jet-set life style.

Xu was detained shortly after Bo's arrest and testified against Bo at his trial in August, although Xu has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Local media reports suggest that authorities are investigating similar ties between the newly disgraced Nanjing mayor and Zhu Xingliang, the richest businessman in Suzhou, a city near Nanjing, who has also been placed under house arrest.

And politically, China produces its top leaders more or less based on patron-client ties rather than meritocracy. Both President Xi and Bo are "princelings" -- the children of senior leaders, the most powerful and influential group in China. Nepotism, a form of corruption, has feudal roots.

In fact, I believe the whole corrupt practice of guanxi is rooted in China's long tradition of renzhi -- rule of men rather than the rule of law.

President Xi has called for a curb on official extravagance: No red carpet treatment, no luxury banquets and no fancy office buildings. But these are the symptoms not the root of the problem.

To stamp out corruption, he will have to not only observe the rule of law but also introduce genuine political reforms that would allow checks and balances, transparency, and independent scrutiny. Such remedies, although proven elsewhere, may be too strong for him to take.

I don't doubt that the authorities will net more tigers. But there will be hundreds and thousands more at large and countless flies, thriving in China's politically and culturally rich breeding ground for corruption.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lijia Zhang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT