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Date: 2022-06-30 Page is: DBtxt001.php txt00009539


An historical background of corruption in China ... Since ancient times, poor payment from the government paved the way for corruption in China.


Peter Burgess

An historical background of corruption in China

Since ancient times, poor payment from the government paved the way for corruption in China.

Corruption in China is not the product of modern times. Widespread corruption is often mentioned in history books as one of the major factors that caused the collapse of China in the 19th Century.

And corruption still exists. In this sense corruption does have a strong historical background or foundation, which makes it extremely challenging to break with. According to the traditional view, the main ingredients of corruption are low-paid government officials, a complex and poorly functioning environment and, last but not least, holes in the legal system.

China has many faces in media all over the world, and when it comes to contemporary Chinese economy, society or politics, the voices are not unanimous. Although in recent years some changes have begun to take shape in the style of reporting, suspicion, caution or even explicitly negative tones still dominate.

The list of negative things about China is probably topped by the famous, or perhaps better to say infamous, cheap and low quality goods. Next would be corruption, based on the fact that the media are generally very keen on sending news about the execution of corrupt officials or politicians.

Unhealthy state administration

In dynastic China the implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations were the task of local officials. As they were underpaid, they were forced to create other income sources as well. Their official salary was entirely at their use, but they also had to finance office expenses, pay their assistants and offer lavish treatment to higher ranking state officials and pay them the “regular fee”, as it was called.

The imperial budget allocated to the administration was rather narrow. Local officials, the prefects, also received a small sum, “jang-lien jin”, meaning “the silver for maintaining integrity”. However, that did not prevent them from accepting bribes in just about any form. Although taking bribes was generally considered to be an unworthy custom or bad habit, it was nevertheless a well-known and widely accepted one. In practice it meant that officials at every level required extra payments from their subordinates or citizens under various names. It was not unusual that extra fees were charged several times for the same “service”.

The types of “fees and charges” had become so complex and the practice of bribery had developed to such an extent that the central government was simply unable to control the situation. Also, it was very unclear as to what counted as “legal corruption” and what fell outside of that. As a result, in the labyrinth of bribes and favors, corruption became an integral part of the entire administration. A European traveler in the 18th Century described Chinese corruption as follows: “the man who preserved his integrity is generally considered as incapable or a dreamer. It is not easy to swim against the stream”.

Frauds, bribes, embezzlement

In this complex system it was only normal that government officials would trade their influence in general for money. To protect themselves from punishments by state businessmen, officials, military leaders and other high ranking state employees formed strong cliques. New people entering the administration carried on these traditions because they firmly believed that corruption is a normal custom that is a part of work. According to historical records, less than three out of ten civil servants could preserve their integrity.

Although China's Emperors were aware of the corruption problem, and most of them made many desperate attempts to eradicate it, their endeavors often proved to be futile. The Great Qing Legal Code, introduced in 1644, specified sanctions against corruption according to the gravity of the crime. The punishment thus depended on the received amount of money or the value of gifts and it varied from beatings with a bamboo stick to the death-penalty.

One of the most infamous corrupt state officials was He Shen, the prime minister of Emperor Qianlong. He accumulated his wealth during two decades in office. In 1799, he lost the Emperor's trust and the court ordered an investigation against him. When his house was searched they found 800 million taels of silver which was the equivalent of ten years of government revenue. His wrongdoings ended when at the age 49, he was given a court decree to hang himself.


Surprisingly, the Confucian concept of renzhi or “people's government” largely contributed to widespread corruption throughout China. In Confucians' view, a true and honest state bureaucrat should be guided by moral principles. Therefore, striving for material wealth was considered inappropriate. Wang Anshi, the famous Chinese economist of the Song dynasty, wanted to introduce reforms in monetary institutions that would reduce corruption and nepotism, but his ideas were dismissed by the Confucian elite. As a result, corruption continued to exist on an even larger scale, involving the court itself and the local elite. In practice it meant that the more important an issue was, the deeper one would need to reach into his pocket.

Corruption has left its mark on the Chinese language and culture. Such proverbs as “a big rooster eats no small rice” or “money falls into the hands of yamen secretaries as lamb into mouth of the tiger” [yamen = state office] illustrate very clearly how much corruption was present in everyday life. Chinese literature also suggests that officials were corrupted, and that it was only natural for them to expect bribes and gifts in return for a favorable decision. The famous naturalistic novel Jin Ping Mei, (The Plum in the Golden Vase) written by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng during the Ming-dynasty openly criticizes the state administration because of corruption. In the long history of China, from dynasty to dynasty, an honest and morally correct magister was indeed an exception to the rule.

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