Will corruption end if we hang the corrupt?

Corruption is India’s most secular activity. Hindu or Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jain, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, urban or rural, all of us practice it, lap around in it, in some form or the other. Either in giving or in taking, or in watching it helplessly.

Year after year, the “secular” republic slides up the totempole of sleaze, but stunningly no one is caught, no one has ever been punished. Worse, in poll after opinion poll, “We, the People” seem to indicate as if corruption does not matter in our mind’s eye.

Corruption is no better in China. But as “Our Man in China” T.J.S. George writes in the fifth of his six-part series, there seem to be two key differences. One, the administration sends strong signals when it wants to, when it suits it. And two, despite the corruption, China has something to show for it.

But does corruption not matter if it gets the work done?

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By T.J.S. GEORGE in Beijing

Everyone knows there’s corruption in China. It’s serious and often widespread. The motivation is money rather than power. Modern China confirms yet again that when market economy rushes in through the door, corruption slips in through the window.

But, unlike India, China metes out punishment to several highprofile bribe-takers.

Occasionally it can be of the sensational, example-setting variety. The biggest example set in this new century was the execution last year of a top official, a food and drug controller. In return for bribes, he allowed eight drug companies to flood the market with substandard products. The international scandal about Chinese toothpaste proving harmful in foreign markets must have shamed the authorities into giving the drug controller the severest punishment.

Political leaders get caught too. A court case early this year involved a former chief of the Shanghai Communist Party who was senior enough and powerful enough to be a member of the Politburo as well. He was sentenced to 18 years in jail for bribery and abuse of power.

The recent earthquake in Sichuan showed that the tendency to make a fast buck is prevalent among ordinary citizens as well. Earthquake relief materials that poured in from all over the world were misappropriated on a large scale. Bottled water, instant noodles and sausages, even tents and sleeping bags, meant for distribution among the quake-hit, were found on sale in shops. Some “modernists” also used SMS to collect money in the name of quake relief and pocket it themselves.

Again, the authorities were quick to take action when the people in the affected areas rose in protest against racketeers. Fines of up to 10,000 yuan (more than Rs 60,000) were imposed on shops found with stolen goods. One shop was ordered closed.

Interestingly, the authorities urged both the people and the media to continue exposing wrongdoers. Sichuan’s civil affairs department chief said: “We hope the media can strengthen their supervision” so
that the Government can “investigate immediately and punish (the culprits) heavily.”

A more serious aspect of corruption unearthed by the quake may prove vexatious for the Government. Many of the schools that collapsed and caused large casualties belonged to the relatively poorer segments of the population. Schools attended by the richer kids stood erect. Clearly some buildings were put up by contractors in an irresponsible manner while some others strictly adhered to building rules.

This was further underlined when all 61 schools built by a Hong Kong-based charity organisation remained intact in one area when hundreds of other schools nearby completely collapsed. Again, the authorities immediately understood that the stricter construction codes of Hong Kong made a difference to their schools while shoddy construction in other cases led to tragedy. Obviously there is a contractor-official collusion in many parts of China that can no longer be denied.

However, it will be wrong to look at corruption in China without looking at the progress of China. Appropriately enough, it was an Indian who brought this to my attention.

A professional banker who has been living in Hong Kong for more than 40 years put it succinctly when he said that corruption had not prevented China from notching up some of the greatest economic achievements of modern times.

From the biggest airport in Asia (Pudong) to the longest sea bridge in the world (36 kilometres), from the most daring architectural wonders to an astonishing system of crisscrossing flyovers—the way urban China has developed must be some kind of a historical record.

“If a country can achieve so much in so short a time, I won’t crib about corruption,” my banker friend said.

Infographic: courtesy Transparency International via The Economist

Also read: Why has corruption become such a small issue?

Is corruption in India really coming down?

Tomorrow: Lessons from Hong Kong and Macau