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 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT