Threshold Between Moral and Immoral

Officials always take the legal definition of corruption as a means to emphasize what is deemed “deliberate corruptions” from a moral perspective. However, in practice officials are faced with the inability of law to discern between what are traditionally acceptable and unacceptable behaviours based on modern Chinese political ethics. As a mid-level official from an SOE explains:

I think there are some problems with our definition of corruption. For example, is people’s normal interactions counted as corruption? Like reciprocity, there is a lot of uncertainty about the degree of corruption. I’m afraid we need further clarification and refinement of a clear standard. We need to do some research to separate reciprocity from corruption as the Chinese people value personal relationships a lot.

The maintenance of personal relationships through reciprocity is associated here with the practice of guanxi, or gift economy. Within this gift economy, there is an ethos of kinship and friendship, which subscribes to a body of ethics that is relational. It provides an ethical and moral framework through which guanxi is cultivated, maintained and operationalized (Osburg 2013: 23). Its ethics are applied not to any a priori bounded unit of individual, class, collective, Party organization or nation but also to particular people or relationships between people in and across these universally defined units (Yang 1988). In this gift economy, friendship is reinforced and maintained through giving gifts (Foucault 1997: xxxvii). As Osburg observes:

Relationships were often couched in a rhetoric of male solidarity, brotherhood, paternalism, mutual aid, and yiqi (honour or a sense of obligation in personal relationships). One template for these relationships is the hierarchical and gendered idiom of kinship. Patrons and well-connected bosses are often referred to as “older brothers” (dage), and their status depends on fulfilling paternalist obligations and providing for the well-being of the other members of their networks. Associate and underlings are usually referred to as “iron bothers” (tiegemen’er) or simply “brothers” (xiongdi). They are expected to put their fictive brotherly relationships above all other commitments, sharing their success and using positions of power to the advantage of other members of their network. (2013: 29-30)

As we briefly discussed in the first section, guanxi sits somewhere in the middle between the private and the public as it often takes the form of semi-private and semi-public relationships. At the elite level, these relationships transcend state and society as well as legitimate and illegitimate moral worlds (185). In this field, officials often employ the technique of guanxi to strive to forge lasting networks, as noted above, of mutual aid with each other by invoking notions such as ideals of brotherhood, paternalism, mutual aid and yiqi (sense of honour and obligation in personal relationships) (79). As President Xi urges:

What is alarming is the Party of classmates, peers, countrymen or colleagues, may evolve into sectarianism or coterie. It’s normal to be a student in Party School, and that classmates have a great relationship is natural. But if you deliberately stress that you are in the same period and same class, and then form a relation of intimate political mutual support, then that is abnormal. There is a casting couch in those parties, people form a special relationship to exchange interests in future. It’s a kind of power-for-money deal and mutual support in politics. This should be forbidden as it is too dangerous.

We often say that the Party cadres come from all corners of the country, we come together for a common revolutionary goal. So we should resist various influences and erosions, to eliminate sectarianism and coterie. (23-25 September 2013)

Thus, some guanxi connections can be composed of a mixture of interests, affect and morality, and it is this mixture of characteristics that distinguishes them from other types of relationships (Osburg 2013: 23). For those who benefit from guanxi, laws, policies and bureaucracies are often softened when filtered through a powerful official patron. These networks and relationships can result in privatization of the state. It “humanizes” the market economy and “humanizes” the state, but only for those with the resources to be part of elite networks (185). Furthermore, these networks are often seen as forging factions within the Party. Thus, to tackle it, the Party attempted to create a sense of fear and uncertainty in the state of exception. We will discuss this strategy in Chap. 5.

Just as elite networks can appropriate state institutional functions for private ends, state power is also refracted and reproduced through them.

Elite networks thus challenge the zero-sum game between state and society (Osburg 2013: 186). As President Xi explains:

The violation with regard to cadre selection is a common problem, through this the cadres system became dysfunctional. The problems of canvassing for votes and transaction of government official positions are very serious in some places. And some people are keen to exploit the political connections. This kind of corruption is the worst corruption, the corruption in position promotion will lead to corruption of power. For those who spent money on securing government official positions, when they eventually have power, they will try every way to get the money back. Strengthening the Party’s discipline should start from officials, governing their power is the vital point, we should investigate and punish appointment corruption seriously. (26 June 2014)

Thus, for many their entrance into officialdom or civil service is from the very start corrupt—they buy their positions, thus bribing their way into potentially privileged positions from which they eventually recoup on their original investment. These elite networks not only provide protection and opportunities for their members but are also the networks through which the state-driven goals of economic growth are achieved (Osburg 2013: 32). They provide a supplementary “rules of the game” for political competition, which supports internal stability and probably reduces political violence within the local state (Hillman 2010: 15). In other words, there is coexistence of corruption and economic growth (cited in Guo 2014: 616). The weakening of the institutional foundations of Maoist collective ethics created the space for guanxi practices to evolve and proliferate, and the moral economy specific to guanxi has in many ways served as an ethical counterweight to market individualism (Osburg 2013: 184-185). As a low-level female official from an education department told us:

Because of our system, the resources are allocated by leaders. It is just like cutting of the cake. It is very important to be a leader. What matters is how much cake you can have rather than your capacity and contribution. What is the principle of dividing the cake? Neither your ability nor your contribution but how close your relationship is to the leader or whether you are in his group. The closer your relationship with the leader, the more share you will get.

As we will reveal below, in many ways, China’s so-called exchange of social gifts culture makes the definition of corruption even more complicated. As a low-level official from the disciplinary department tells us:

From the discipline inspection commission’s definition, it is very simple.

If you and me just know each other and will not spend quit a lot of time together in the future, then I can accept gift from you, this could be considered to be a normal social gift. But when we know each other very well, and you ask me to do you a favour, this would become a conflict of interest, and I can’t accept your gifts. This is how the training course run by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection defines corruption.

For this official definition, what is corrupt and not corrupt is a matter of the type of relationship that exists between gift givers and gift receivers. As we will illustrate below, the complex process of discerning corrupt from acceptable behaviours is all about eradicating the strings, attachments and obligations that grease the wheels of patronage, factionalism and intimate relationships of mutual political support among officials in China.

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