On a pointless debate and corruption in China

By He Qinglian on November 29, 2012

The disclosure of obscene video footage of official Lei Zhengfu has sparked off some debates in China. Apart from the argument about “anti-corruption and privacy protection”, whichever is more important; there is also another argument about whether Ji Xuguang, the person who brought the video footage to light, is a good man or a bad one.

The reasons those criticized Ji are, first, Ji did that out of the desire to become famous; second, Ji was not the first one to disclose that information. From the second reason a viewpoint with Chinese characteristics, one that is not seen anywhere else in the world arose: the person who disclosed that has ethically problem, and his information source unjustified. Therefore, due process has not been observed, and hence the legitimacy of this act of anti-corruption is open to question. There are even some individuals who said, in an attempt to indicate that Lei was framed, the footage, dated 2007, was filmed by the developer out of special motives.

And in no time, skepticism about Ji's character and his motives become as intense as the corruption case of Lei Zhengfu itself. It is agreed that anti-corruption is the last moral defense in society after the humankind entered the era of civilization. The political consensus has long been gone in China, and the various discussions concerning the exposure of Lei's video showed signs that the moral consensus in the Chinese society, too, is about to be lost.

To start with, the absurdity of the claim that a footage in 2007 cannot be used now to investigate Lei can be refuted with the following fact: when former French president Jacques Chirac served as the Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, he fabricated 21 government posts to pay the salary to members of his political party. That cost Paris taxpayers an amount roughly about 1.4 million euros. As a result of this, on December 15, 2011 a court in France found Chirac guilty of misappropriation of public funds and abuse of public trust and meted out a two-year suspended prison sentence. There are many other similar cases and I will skip listing them one by one.

There is an argument that the construction developer filmed out special motives. Even if that was the case, the fact that Lei traded power for sex has not been altered. Those who raised this probably hasn't thought about the social context of this incident. Allegedly, the woman is an employee of the construction developer who bribed Lei. And she only got overtime pay in providing sex service to official. If this was true, then several things are revealed.

First, the developer specially created job position of that nature for pretty women indicates that this type of sex bribery has already become a day-to-day PR model of some enterprises in China. The woman has grown accustomed to the overtime pay of a mere 300 yuan for that sex service means she is fully aware of her duty.

Second, Lei himself accepted this sex service provided by the developer without hesitation means he is familiar with this. Since keeping mistresses could easily end up in trouble—a corrupt official being turned over by his mistresses for instance, this way of accepting sex service provided by a third party is simple and direct, and it would leave no hassle behind. Moreover, this sounds cleaner than sex service by professional prostitutes and is less risky for him to contract venereal diseases. Lei’s feeling totally at ease in accepting this offer, which evolved from the mistress-phenomenon of the Chinese officialdom, means he used his power to make enterprises provide him sex service for free. If this is not corruption, then what is?

As I write I’d like to raise a dated incident. Back then when White House intern Monica Lewinsky confided in her close friend Linda Tripp her affairs with President Clinton, Tripp secretly tape-recorded that and submitted it to a judge. Although there are many people who do not like what Tripp did, they merely thought she treated her friend badly and no one would want a friend like her, none of them had any doubt about the “procedural justice” in the way the evidence of the case was obtained. In other words, no one was skeptic about “the legitimacy of sources”.

Third, whether or not Ji Xuguang's competing with the first discloser for credit and his attempt to made himself stand out affect the legitimacy of sources and the act of anti-corruption itself? Normally, the discloser willingly gave such information to Ji suggested that the discloser had placed some trust in Ji in the start.

The alleged competition for fame between the two that followed was to point out Ji’s failing to keep his promise to the first discloser and raced to release the information ahead of his source was just a problem of personal credibility. Since Ji did not fabricate the evidence, his actions did not affect the authenticity of the information per se. And naturally, there is no question of the so-called “procedural justice” in this anti-corruption action; even less so would Ji’s behavior affect the legitimacy of the anti-corruption action itself. All that the disciplinary committee and procuratorate take into account is the truthfulness of the evidence.

Fourth, some individuals suggested that whether the persons who took action to combat corruption did so out of noble motives or not determined the legitimacy of the anti-corruption action. This proposition on “motives” is outright absurd. Those who raised this point are shockingly ignorant in this area.

Throughout human history, those who told off a corruption have always been of multifarious motives. The majority of those people are insiders who have disagreement over the division of the spoils, some report it to save themselves, or to take avenge. Of course there are some who report corruption out of the detest of it, but these people are but a handful.

The reason that this is so could be understood easily. Outsiders in general could not report an official for corruption just because they feel the source of income of that official is suspicious. The prosecution agencies could not place a case on file for investigation simply because of a suspicious feeling. It is only the insiders who know of the corruption, and only they could tell off such cases with concrete details or even produce evidence.

In recent years many corrupt officials in China got fired because of their mistresses, why? That's because those mistresses had close and intimate relationship with those officials and they knew fully of the corruption; some of them even served the intermediary for the officials who took bribe.

Back when I was in Shenzhen I had a discussion with the person in charge of the economic crime report center of the procuratorate. I asked that person how many of the reports they received were passed on to the court and how big a ratio was those cases that were filed for investigation. That person said:

Only less than 10% of those reports would enter the investigation procedure, that is, to talk with the persons who reported corruption. If the details could be verified, the reports would then be passed on to the procuratorate. In general, the identity of the individuals who filed such reports could be used to decide whether what they said was true or just hearsay. A leader of a unit would only have to assign his own people to take up the three key positions—head of personnel section, head of treasury and office director—to effectively turning the unit into a private company of his own and do whatever he likes with it.

By and large staff of prosecution agencies takes reports made by these insiders more seriously and they would conduct investigations based on the information these people gave.

Those people who rejected Ji’s motives in disclosing the footage as “ulterior” didn’t even think about the followings: those mistresses are themselves the beneficiaries of the bribery; those insiders who assumed the three key positions in a unit have long been part of the corruption chain. That these people told off corrupt officials were mostly not out of the sense of righteousness but rather of self-protection in the cases of mistresses who were about to be dumped, or anger from the scuffle over the division of the spoils in the cases of insiders. Just when were these people’s motives considered “noble”?

To fight crimes, many countries have in place the “tainted witness” system, wherein those taking part in criminal activities could work with a country’s prosecution agencies, become a witness of the prosecution and testify against other perpetrators in exchange for a reduction in or absolution of their criminal responsibility. The difference between tainted witnesses and ordinary witnesses is that the former is involved in criminal activities, they are tainted with crimes. Nonetheless these witnesses are conducive to collecting evidence of other perpetrators and they help reduce the costs of solving a case. Hence, Western countries like the United States implement this system, only that they take extra caution when they use it. From this we could see the personal character of those who tip off a crime has no logical correlation with the legitimacy of crime punishment.

The reason I gave the example of tainted witnesses is that I wanted to illustrate one point: even if Ji Xuguang exposed this footage out of the desire for fame, the legitimacy of the action to fight corruption has not been affected in any way.

Fighting corruption on the Internet is a phenomenon that emerges from the unique social background of China, it is also the only political activity the general public can take part in. It is true that this looks a bit like carnival of the masses, and at times the wrong persons got accused. But, in view of the profound damages corruption does to the Chinese society, the government's combat against corruption reduced to a mere formality—more than 640 thousand corruption cases were filed for investigation in the past five years, most of them just received administrative sanctions and disciplinary punishments; only 24 thousand were passed on to the judicial organs, this way of fighting corruption on the Internet would still be necessary for a long time to come.