by Hartmut Schweitzer

China is made more mysterious by those who study it” (JOHN K. FAIRBANKS)


          Corruption in China is such a many-faceted problem that a satisfactory explanation regarding its causes seems barely possible. One can, however, identify some main components, which constitute the pillars of corruption. Therefore, this article will deal neither with specific nor recent cases of corruption in China. It rather addresses the identification and discussion of some of the socially important, deeply rooted socio-cultural conditions, which make China so notoriously susceptible for corruption.  Because one thing must be very clear: Corruption in China is as old as the unified Chinese state, certainly even older than the >Middle Kingdom< (Zhong Guo).

          On the other side, China is not a unique historical exception, because in all the antique Eurasian empires like Egypt, Babylon or the Roman Empire corruption was widespread, perhaps even endemic. This menace seems to be due to an extremely elaborated bureaucracy and a notoriously social unsecure and unpredictable judicial system in these early empires [i]. But for the >Eternal China< one can identify some more causes for the continuity of corruption from the early times until today. One main reason is the amazing stability of the structure of the state as well as the underlying political philosophy since the last 2000 years. For this reason one can only understand the corruption within the modern, the allegedly communist China if one takes a close look at the foundations of the imperial, the >Eternal China<, which I will outline here.

But first corruption has to be defined to clarify what will be discussed in this article:

>Corruption will be named: the illegal and / or morally as doubtfully judged exchange between (minimum) two parties (persons), which enables the acquisition of individually, or group related advantages. The exchange will be executed by means, which are legally inappropriate or even legally forbidden<.

Explanatory note:

             Corruption is always and inevitably a relational offence.

             Corruption does not exist as a pure individual action.

             Corruption manifests, notwithstanding other structural conditions, always an unsolved clash of different norms:

             (1) a conflict between particularistic and universalistic norms and / or

             (2) a competition between contradictory universalistic norms [ii].

             This definition means that corruption always and exclusively implies exchange actions in which obliging universalistic norms are violated or bypassed in favour of particularistic or even familistic norms with the intention to gain unjustified (illegal or illegitimate) personal or group-specific advantages.

          But back to China:

  • Social Hierarchy

          In contrast to post-medieval Europe the Chinese philosophy of the state since the unification of China has never substantially disengaged from the familistic patterns of thought dating back to the period of the clan-organization. They are at the basis of the Chinese version of the >Five cardinal virtues<[iii] stemming directly from the Confucian tradition by which some social relations receive a paramount importance. These basic relations (wu lun) are: (1) between ruler and subject, (2) between father and son, (3) between elder and younger brother, (4) between husband and wife and (5) between friends [iv]. According to the Chinese concept all these relations are designed along the lines of the hierarchic principles of anciennity and patterns of super- and subordination governing in the nature.[v] In all these relationships the elder have a far-reaching range of privileges and competences in relation to the younger (see Bond & Hwang, 1987; p. 215). These are the obligatory super- and subordinations which are formative for the Chinese culture focussed as in a magnifying glass. They result from an ideal typically imagined patrilinear culture almost completely independent of any universalistic norms. It is almost self-evident that within such a system of norms it is very difficult if not impossible to oppose illegal or illegitimate wishes of elder or superior persons.

(2) The Son of the Heaven and the Heavenly Order on Earth

          At the top of the state was the emperor as the Son of the Heaven who gained his legitimacy not primarily from the bloodline, the descent, as common not only in most European systems of rule, but from his ability to establish and to keep the harmony of the heaven and thus the heavenly order on earth.

          This ability can be passed on within the family or the clan, and only this and not the >blood< gives the ruler the legitimization for his position. If he is not able to keep the Heavenly Order it is not only the right but the duty of the subjects >to mandate< a new ruler.

          On the other side to achieve the Heavenly Harmony the emperor has the right to demand obedience from his subjects [vi]. The aim of the reign obliges all subjects to render the emperor the same son’s piety as within the family the sons owe it to the father. Consequently, a subject who is disobedient without reason endangers by his behaviour not only the reign of the Son of the Heaven but also the well-being of the state and by that attracts the wrath of Heaven.

          From a European viewpoint the five cardinal virtues constitute for an individual a multiplicity of different obligations with many possible intersections, difficulties and incompatibilities. But if one looks at it from a Chinese perspective regarding the nature of social life they disappear if the human being acts correctly in a social relation, because if a man acts correctly in one relation then he will inevitably develop the essential abilities to fulfil all the other obligations adequately. Therefore in China adaptability and not intrinsic consistency becomes the focal point in the development of the individual’s character, as emphasized e.g. by Bond and Hwang (1987; p. 216), whereby the loyalties and dependencies are construed vertically and not horizontally. A European has to be aware of the fact that this is a matter of moral-ethical guidelines, not the compliance with codified law.

          This ideology or belief has left deep traces in everyday thinking of the Chinese. It explains e.g. their deep-rooted fear of disorder; thus a typical Chinese, presumably Confucianist based curse runs: “You may encounter interesting times”. In the social reality this kind of thinking has led to the still prevailing system of clientelism or better: to the result that it has never been seriously challenged.

(3) Confucianism and State Government

          The times of the Spring and Autumn Period, named after the influential >Spring and Autumn Annals< (Chūnqiū Shídài) and the following >Period of the Warring States< (476-221 BC)[vii] have been times of fundamental, long-lasting changes in all social, cultural and technological fields. In this era science, philosophy, technology and literature blossomed and many new cities were founded, many of them still existing [viii]. The old feudalistic system collapsed or was abolished and the foundations of new bureaucratic states emerged. During these turbulent times different philosophical trends developed aiming at bringing a new intellectual order into the political and spiritual chaos because the conventional explanations and old rules did not work anymore. In particular, two new directions developed. One is Confucianism, which is based on an idealistic view of the old times, the ancestors and the clan-system, and the other is legalism (or legism), which wanted to establish a new order on the basis of the acknowledgment of the new reality and the absolute validity of the law resp. the laws. One could describe legalism as an extreme kind of a system of law exclusively based on universalistic norms, which do not allow for any exceptions in punishment, no matter which social status a culprit has. In their majority the Warring States followed the political philosophy of the Confucian tradition, enriched with Daoist and Mohist elements [ix]. Only the government of the state of Qin followed the legalistic principles. The most important document of legalism has been written by Han Fei [x], who as an advisor has been similarly unsuccessful during his lifetime as Confucius [xi], which presumably was caused by Han Fei’s stuttering. But he could write very well, which is evident until today by his book >The Art of Governance< (Han Feizi Ji shi) [xii]. The realism without any illusion displayed in this book allows to compare it with Thucydides’ >History of the Peloponnesian War< or with Machiavelli’s >The Prince<. However, Han Fei was able to build upon some intellectual pioneers so that his work can be considered as the peak and the completion of legalism in China. That his way of thinking has nothing in common with the conception of piety of the Confucians, which originated from the world of the clans, is shown by the following section:

          “If one looks at the things realistically than a prudent ruler is not allowed in his governing of the state to trust in the love of the people who serve him but he has to make sure that they do not have any chance to do different than to serve him. The man who believes that the people serving him do this out of love for the ruler is in danger. However who makes sure that the people have no choice but to serve him lives in safety. It is true that ties of blood-relationship do not tie ruler and subject together. But the subjects will do their utmost if sincere, honest behaviour will bring them benefits. But if sincerity and honesty do not mean anything, they will commit serious offences against the ruler by egoistic actions. Because the prudent ruler does know this he will define what is of benefit and what of harm and let this be known all over ” (Han Fei, 1994; p. 118/9)[xiii].

          After Qin’s victory over its rivalling neighbour states the first emperor of the now unified China, Qin Shi Huang Di, tried to eradicate the then already venerable tradition of Confucianism because of its ideological threat to his power [xiv]. Although he let burn all relevant Confucian books and also let slay about 400 Confucian scholars – it is said that they were buried alive – and instead appointed exponents of legalism as advisers, he was not successful in eradicating Confucianism, mainly because he neglected the prudent utilitarism in the protection of his autocratic rule, which one finds in Han Fei’s advices. Instead he replaced them by a despotic organisation of oppression and that is why immediately after his death upheavals arose, which ended in the rule of the restorative Han-dynasty (206 BC – 220 AC). Ever since then the influence of Confucianism on all aspects of the Chinese society cannot be overestimated. “In grotesque contrast to the inefficacy in practice of the living Confucius is his posthumous ritual adoration. It started in the central-state of the Han and become a key institution of this state.” (Moritz; 1990, p. 45)

Digression 1               

Although most Chinese know that they are deeply shaped by the Confucian thinking to them the whole extent of these effects are largely unconscious and not reflected. Indeed, the normal Chinese will not interpret his behaviour as specifically Confucian but as “natural” or as the only acceptable behaviour for civilized men [xv]. And I think one does not exaggerate if one describes the officially dominant Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology ( augmented with some nationalistic set pieces by the new leader Xi Jinping) in fact as a mixture of European-socialist ideas with a great amount of Confucian rule dosed with very old original Chinese revolutionary-utopian ideas.

          It seems that the assertion has a certain amount of plausibility that the bitter experiences the Chinese made with the imposed effort of implementing a political philosophy based on universalistic norms (and the connected extremely authoritarian system of government) in that times have entrenched themselves so deeply into the collective memory that since then any further effort to replace the familistic system of norms by an universalistic one was out of question [xvi]. But if the familistic and thus unavoidably particularistic system of norms with its emphasis on the importance of kinship dominates the philosophy of the state it is extremely unlikely that a convincing public consciousness of the necessary limits of these norms will develop. The preference of relatives and friends over strangers and particularly foreigners is inherent in this system. Consequently our western ideas of normative misconduct in preferring relatives, friends or acquaintances, which constitute corruption, are not applicable to this system without frictions.  

          Confucianism constituting a set of rules for regulating the social interaction of men doubtlessly aims at the real world, not a transcendent one, but without denying the existence of gods. To order the world it does not aim primarily at the betterment of the individual by ethical prescriptions as the religions of salvation do, but on the adherence to the rules for proper behaviour. According to this way of thinking harmony will be gained by the hierarchical order of all relations, which partly explains the Chinese obsession to place all things and matters in a rank order [xvii]

          Indeed this hierarchically structured harmony constitutes a very delicate balance between the duties and the rights of an individual, which is permanently endangered mainly by the enormous differences in the individual access to power and to the social and material resources. The abuse of power by superiors can result in severe, sometimes even life-threatening difficulties for the subordinates and therefore Confucius and his followers strongly emphasized the necessity of a moral of compassion and the honesty of the persons of authority as a kind of “antidote” against these frightening dangers. But they never favoured the development and application of universalistic norms and neutral legal propositions. Such an ideological swing, which would have been possible under the influence of the legalists, contradicted and still contradicts fundamentally the familistic system of thoughts and therefore was virtually impossible to think for Confucians.

          But one knows that ethical postulates do not form a lasting effective safeguard and that is why the whole Chinese history shows that the violation of ethical postulates rather than the violation of codified legal propositions by superiors provided the justification for rebellions. That is because a neutral judicial authority to which one could turn did not exist and does not exist until now. Although the destruction of the Heaven’s order obliged every man to restore it, even by rebellion, the underlying concept is completely different from that in Europe where after the Magna Charta (stipulated June 15, 1215) the idea that the law is above the king and binds him became slowly accepted, and that consequently resistance against a master who is acting unjust is allowed, but this has nothing to do with the moral order of Heaven, a concept unknown in Europe.

          Thus in the Chinese society it is not the bad conscience of an individual, which has done something wrong, that really counts; this is a more or less private matter. Much more important is the shame of an individual if and because it has violated its obligations to others: the family, the peer-group, the >danwei< (the >unit<), the Communist party etc. Due to the validity of this mechanism the Chinese culture is often called a >culture of shame< because shame is the decisive distinguishing feature when compared to a >culture of conscience< in the West. Therefore, in Chinese education, the development of the sentiments of shame plays a much more important role than in the west, where education aims at the development of the individual’s moral conscience. Everything that helps to make a relation work smoothly is highly appreciated, including altruistic lies by which one avoids endangering the relation. Therefore, in China a lie may be more highly appreciated than the telling – and possibly >insisting on the position< – of a truth which, after all, is the narrow perspective of a person in regard to the reality. In a Chinese-European relation this kind of flexibility can cause considerable irritations where usually the Europeans will not mention this frankly but only if and when they are forced to do so. But the relation will deteriorate and it will be difficult and take much time to >repair it<.

 (4) Familism vs. Universalism

          One can distinguish societies according to their dominant system of norms. Western societies typically have developed systems of universalistic norms, which warrant more or less affective neutrality and apply equally to all inhabitants of the state, which means that the social status of a person in question is irrelevant [xviii]. The human rights with their crucial proposition >All men are equal< are the best example for this and the application of such norms in everyday life situations we call >rule of the law<.

          Following the presentation above it should be obvious that the situation in China is completely different because in the public sector the particularistic norms of the familistic system with a more than 2500 years’ tradition are still prevailing. They are best characterized with the proposition: >Each law will be applied correspondently to the merits and the social status of the person in question<. One finds the most open socio-structural manifestation in the familistic pattern of the clientelism[xix], which is not only typical for China but is also (still) widespread in some European regions like the Balkans, parts of Spain, great parts of Italy and most notably in Greece: regions where also corruption is still deeply rooted and endemic. Because within the system of familism a transmission of the values that are adjusted to the family or clan to the civilian and / or state affairs takes place with the result that the family or the clan gains the first place in all matters. The loyalty of men within a system of familistic norms does not belong to the state but more or less exclusively to the family [xx]. Therefore the slogan of Mao Tse tung, which seems to be very silly for many Europeans, >To serve the people<, was in fact very revolutionary in the Chinese context because the traditions-eliminating implication was >And not (primarily) the family<, amounting to a complete breach with the Confucian obligation.

          In systems where the bureaucracy and the judiciary operate on the basis of universalistic norms the actions of the state consequently are neutral and predictable. In contrast, in a system, which is deficient in these aspects, the family renders the only safe haven which one can rely on if one is in trouble and to which one can retreat. This is expressed very fine in the Chinese saying:

>Thousand days at home: Peace; one moment outside: Trouble.<

          In such a system the more or less smooth functioning of the state is possible, but requires – considered realistically – an idealistic ruler who is fulfilling his duties without any self-interest. In reality, however, an absence of a rule of law which is binding the highest stately power to the laws necessarily leads to a legal system which – according to Max Weber – can be called an >irrational qadi-judiciary<[xxi]. It does not offer any security because its outcomes are not deducible from the written laws, but in all likelihood are strongly socially biased.

          Consequently the social beliefs of most Chinese are very near to the famous statement of Lord Acton that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The judicial system offers no protection. Only the hard earned personal achievements and connections are reliable sources of stability and security in an inconstant social world [xxii].

          Therefore, the family in China is not only a group of persons bound together by the common lineage, but it is the only group one can really trust and thus it is much more important than in Europe.

Digression 2           

In all familistic systems, but especially in China, the family is a kind of >fixed star< in a social world perceived as generally precarious and not trustworthy. The basic familistic construction principle of society leads more or less inevitably to the typical Chinese behaviour of distrust of all persons outside the own family – at least in the beginning. This also explains the all-embracing suspicion of espionage against foreigners.

There are strong indicators that the economic success of the overseas-Chinese, mainly in the Pacific area, results from their efforts always to build up a network of relations with other Chinese and to undertake all business within this net. Although these Chinese normally live in a non-Chinese environment they try to confine their business as well as their private relations to Chinese and usually they leave it only when they have no alternative. This pattern is mainly found with so-called overseas Chinese in Asia, Europe and South America while it is not reported to be as prevalent in the USA, although similar trends seem to exist there.

The withdrawal to the own ethnic group and the seclusion from the non-Chinese social environment, but also the distance to their own Chinese state, always encouraged the development and the persistence of various secret organisations like the so-called triads. But on the other hand this behaviour also nourished outside China the development of aggressive and violent anti-Chinese movements like those in Indonesia in the nineteen sixties [xxiii].

         Because the Chinese social as well as judicial thinking is rarely ever guided by objective formal rules, but determined mainly by more or less arbitrary ethical principles there was in the traditional education of the mandarins only an ethical-cultural but no professional education in the European meaning, which is reflected in the saying: >If you want to outrank the others, master the classics<. This implies that not the finding of new ways or new interpretations were the aim of the examinations but the interpretation of the already accepted authoritative insights. Culturally best acceptable was the mixing of a traditional interpretation and an individual adaptation to changed circumstances. It is obvious without any deeper analysis that such a system does not encourage fundamental innovations. In principle, this kind of thinking has largely managed to make its way into the modern socialistic world with the dominance of a predefined ideology and the respective official interpretations.

Digression 3           

            Because the qualification of the mandarins aimed at a moral rather than the professional education, it was necessary for them to acquire a profound knowledge of the so-called classical texts of the Confucian tradition. Therefore this group secured a sort of monopoly in the correct interpretation of the classical texts and thus rendered them – “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx 1959, p. 13)[xxiv] – an even stronger state-supporting importance than they had originally anyhow. By their interpretation the mandarins eliminated from Confucianism almost all ideas of an emphasis on the rights of the individuals although there have been obvious approaches to a concept of human rights in the  writings of Menzius (Mong Zi / Meng Tse; see e.g. Roetz, pp. 318 ff ) [xxv].

Presumably for this reason the Chinese political theorists and philosophers preferred to deal with the moral quality of the emperors and their advisors rather than with the socio-structural and organisational conditions for a perfect functioning of the state. Consequently their writings abound with reasoning about the moral quality of the emperors, but do not deal with the dominating social structures and their developments.

          This commitment to the tradition together with the one-dimensional social hierarchy, which left only the career as a civil servant as the socially accepted way to success the examinations for this social advancement were much more rigorous than the social competition in Western societies, and differed from these considerably, because it was an exclusively indirect, purely formal competition only designed for the examination situation.

          Due to this bottle-neck in the access to the imperial administration und thus to socially legitimated power and wealth the temptation to cheating has always been great. After all, the alternative to a success in the examination was the social disaster of a failure, a disaster not only for the candidate himself, but usually also for the extended family, which had supported the candidate for years financially. The family burdened this only candidate with the hope for a common social advancement by the promise of reaching the status of a mandarin. In reality the chances of success have never been particularly good, rather they have been depressingly bad; for the 19th century one has calculated a ratio of 1.000:1 between applicants and graduates [xxvi].

          As in all areas, where a “the winner takes all”-situation prevails or develops, the number of attempted as well as successful frauds is enormous, but difficult to detect and that includes of course corruptive collusions.

(5) Face, Loss of Face and Failure

          One of the very decisive terms in connection with the issue of social reputation, status and prestige in China is the concept of >face<, for which there are two different words: mianzi (mien-tzu) and lian (lien) [xxvii], which differ in their meaning. “The one, mien-tzu, refers to the kind of prestige to which the same meaning is ascribed as in the United States: referring to reputation which is gained by advancement in life, by success and ostentatious wealth. It is a prestige, which has been attained by personal achievement or by clever manoeuvring. With regard to such appreciation the man is always dependent on his social environment. The other “face”, lien, […] refers to the respect of a group for a man who enjoys a good reputation in the ethical sense: to a man who fulfils his obligations regardless of a tight net of difficulties encountered, a man who remains honest under all circumstances. It reveals the trust of the society in the integrity of the character of a man, who after the loss of this trust is no longer able to play this role in society. Lien is as well the appreciation of the society for the protection of ethical norms as an internalised sanction” (Hsien Chin Hu (1966), p. 238 f) [xxviii].

          In Chinese culture the loss of face is a process, which cannot be taken easy by an individual fully integrated in this society. Thus to fail in the imperial mandarin examinations was an individual as well as a social catastrophe, because it not only meant to be without success but at the same time it was a severe >loss of face<, therefore a loss of mianzi, and the end of all prospects of a career as a mandarin. Moreover, it often meant also the loss of lian; and if the reason for the failure was the expulsion due to cheating, these failed candidates not seldom slipped off into criminality. Therefore, until their abolishment in 1908 these examinations have been a permanent source of various kinds of corruption [xxix]. Even today, failing in the admission examinations of the universities amounts to a clear breach in the lives of the failed, which is one reason why young Chinese, whose parents can afford it, often prefer to study abroad.

          Under social as well as economic aspects these rigid examination or selection systems, which leave the failed hardly any possibility for a second chance, are a waste of human capital and also an additional incentive to “corriger la fortune“; therefore filthy machinations are quite common. Because the Chinese society is still not secured by universalistic norms and an appropriate judicial system, the individual person has to obtain protection and social security by other means. This is done best by the accumulation of individual and social resources, this is what since Bourdieu in the social sciences one calls >social capital<. Therefore the construction of a network of relations has such an importance for the Chinese. One can say that the number of mutual social relations correlates positively with the amount of >social capital< an individual can dispose of. This is clearly expressed in the Chinese saying: >It does not matter what you know but whom you know<. In China social connections are extremely important because all relations can be regarded as exchanges of resources.

          In principle this mechanism is encountered in all cultures but in China’s familistic system its importance is incomparably greater than in cultures characterised by the prevalence of universalistic norms. In China the multiplicity of connections forms a kind of construct named >guanxi<, that is a more or less permanent net of social relations. The greater and more solid this net, the greater and more valuable are the resources an individual has available for the social exchange processes. This net becomes stronger mainly by the frequency and quality of the interactions.

          If a man plays the social game successfully according to the rules the Chinese say that he has >face< [xxx] (mianzi / mien-tzu). In the process of acquiring >face< the successful and therefore influential persons have obliged several persons (colleagues, assistants, comrades), who have helped him: teachers, employees, superiors etc. The norm of reciprocity (bao) requires that he pays off his social debts if and when he is requested to do so. A failure or denial of this exchange leads inevitably to a >loss of face<, here in the meaning of the moral integrity of a civilised person (lian / lien) (see Bond (1987), p. 58 f).

          Basically such mechanisms are also known in Europe, but in China their special quality is derived from the large number of mutual obligations, their extension over much longer time-spans than in Europe and the (relatively) easy transferability of social >debts< from one person to another. This is a main cause for the high importance of a large number of solid as possible connections with many persons.

          The following hypothetical example may illustrate this:

An individual (A) wants person (B) to do him a favour, e.g. to secure his son the access to a specific school, but he has no closer relation with (B), thus he has not been able to gain >face< towards him, which would allow him to approach (B) with his request.

          Thus (A) has to activate his substantial relation to (C), who is more closely related with (B). But if (A) is not quite sure that he has acquired enough >face< towards (B) he will additionally introduce (D) into the negotiation, who is related with (A) and with (B).

          These connections mean that the persons involved are mutually obliged to a different extent because they have done each other favours and thus gained >face< (mianzi) of varying strength but sufficient to introduce it into the negotiations. In effect, (C) can indirectly equalise an obligation against (A) by persuading (B) and (D) to take over his obligation against (A).

          It is possible that this >settlement of obligations< is considerably deferred over time or, as in the example shown above, that the obligations are split onto two members of the                                                                                                    

guanxi-network, who are taking over different shares (based on Bond 1987, p. 59).

          Perhaps this somewhat intricate example helps to explain the outstanding social importance of gifts in China and to realise that in this system of manifold relations and dependencies they have a much deeper reach than in Europe [xxxi]. Of course the petitioner must first decide for himself if he has enough >face< (mianzi) in the relation with the more powerful person – that is why in the example actor(A) does not turn directly to (B), but engages (C) and (D) – to make sure that his bidding is successful. At least it would have been utterly embarrassing if his petition were rejected because this would clearly show that he miscalculated the weight of his >face< and that would amount to a bitter >loss of face<, because a man who does not know his proper place in the Chinese society disrupts the delicate social balance of privileges and obligations (see Bond (1987), p. 59).

          But if the mutual exchange processes have been successful the outcome is that they strengthen this whole scheme of arrangements and convince the participants to repeat it as often as possible and necessary. If this arrangement has been accomplished several times and with multiple participants it becomes a social habit, positively valued by those who have gained advantages. Thus this habit will survive even social constellations, which are in principle opposed to it, because it seems to guarantee considerable advantages to all people involved. Particularly with regard to corruption we have here one reason for the fact that the underlying stimuli of corruption do not disappear, on the contrary they seem to grow and flourish.

(6) Guanxi and Corruption

          The importance of >guanxi< for the functioning of the Chinese society can hardly be overestimated, because although this concept has come under social pressure due to the technical-economical modernisation and the ensuing changes in attitude it still constitutes a dominant pattern within the Chinese society [xxxii].

          But the concept is not undisputed between the scholars dealing with the problems involved. Fan e.g. holds the view that the term >guanxi< not only covers varying meanings but also different concepts: on the one side >guanxi< means a relationship, but a relationship does not necessarily imply >guanxi<. Furthermore he distinguishes different fields which are (see Fan; 2002, pp. 546 ff.): >guanxi< (1) as connection, (2) as exchange, (3) as resource and (4) as process which he describes as follows: “Guanxi is the process of social interactions that initially involve two individuals (A and B). A may or may not have special relationships with B. A asks B for assistance (favour) in finding a solution to a problem. B may have the solution at hand, or more often, has to seek further assistance from other connections, i.e. starts another process.” (Fan; 2002, p. 549) This is more or less a situation similar to that presented in the example above. But Fan’s most important statement with reference to corrupt exchanges is that >guanxi< “is a kind of personal possession: an asset owned by an individual and working only at personal level. […] Whether an organization can use the guanxi asset of its employee is entirely up to the person himself.” (Fan; 2002, p. 553)

          This clearly shows that >guanxi< is the manifest evidence for the lasting social validity of particularistic norms, which are the direct consequence of the overwhelming importance of Confucianism for arranging personal relations. It is valued much higher than the regulation of relations by abstract social neutral norms prevailing in the West. This different basis causes also a view of the problem of corruption which differs from the Western view, because in the Chinese context it is much more difficult than in Europe to exactly identify a corrupt relation. To apply the definition of corruption presented above to Confucian-Chinese situations is difficult because the particularistic norms are almost inextricably intertwined with the universalistic norms. Therefore the borderline between a gift demonstrating friendship and attachment and the beginning of corruption is almost impossible to distinguish. Thus it makes no sense in such a system to issue a law, which says: “The limit of a permitted gift is a value of 1000 Yuan”, because by that law the socially defined and accepted specific quality of a relation is ignored. The observation of the specific quality of such a relation is fundamental to the whole Chinese system, and for this reason the Chinese provisions cannot stipulate that personal relations are to be neglected as is possible in Europe. Although in principle such problems exist also in Western countries they are encountered much less frequently and on a much smaller scale; this is due to a much lower level and a relatively strict separation of particularistic and universalistic norms.

          A behaviour that traditionally was generally accepted and often even expected of Chinese civil servants (in former times a mandarin, today a “ganbu” [functionary / bureaucrat]) has been and still is that the public office is used to gain personal advantages. Problems with the public arise when the enrichment becomes exaggerated; there seems to be a fine balanced social sense to which degree personal enrichment is still tolerable – and therefore permitted – and when this limit is exceeded. There exist calculations, which show that less than 5% of the normal income of an imperial mandarin came from his official salary while the rest derived from charges for certificates, from the performance of judicial procedures etc. etc. and from “bribes”. This tradition and the attitude connected have survived the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 and the ordinary Chinese bureaucrat (ganbu) still follows the rule: “Care for yourself and your family (first)“.

Digression 4

     It is often very difficult to clearly separate the benefit for the public or the enterprise and for the employee or occupant of a position. If a Hong Kong Chinese merchant supplies a state-owned factory in Fujian province with Italian machines for producing shoes and adds a brand-new Volvo as an official present for the factory it is absolutely clear that the head of the factory will be the exclusive beneficiary although officially it must not be a personal gift. But without such a “little sign of personal appreciation” the Hong Kong merchant would have abandoned all chances to make any further deal with this Chinese company  [xxxiii] .

          The modern post-revolutionary China until the early 1980s was a country more or less free of pervasive corruption. Since then the situation has changed drastically because of a revival of the old traditions. Many analysts, however, attribute the wide-spread corruption to the contradiction between a Leninist dictatorship and the simultaneous efforts to establish a market economy. At the end of the eighties Friedman refused to accept that the problems of corruption, which at least were made partly responsible for the events around the massacre at the >Place of the Heavenly Peace< in 1989, were caused by the Chinese tradition. Instead he pointed out that the main responsibility was to be seen in the continued existence of the Maoist system. However, I think that Friedman’s approach is too narrow, because he obviously is only interested in the structural and organisational aspects of the situations, in which corruption takes place, while he largely ignores the normative aspects in which these actions are embedded.

          These two simultaneous but rather incompatible developments indicate that one has to understand that a significant part of corruption is an important and highly complex problem within the contemporary Chinese system and its development. The until now unanswered question for the unambiguously attributable causes of corruption make the successes of the economic reforms appear rather fragile and in view of the absence of political-social reforms in many respects seem fallacious.

          Without going deeper into that matter it seems to be evident that in a guanxi-system the mutual social obligations have a much greater social importance and therefore weight for the individual than any abstract legal norm. Therefore, the illegal preference given to relatives and friends is quite normal and expectable and no really deviation from the socially accepted procedures.

          Consequently it must not be expected that the problem of corruption can be eliminated in the foreseeable future. To which extent it will seriously impede socio-economic development right now and in future, is nearly impossible to predict. However, the events of 1989 should serve as severe warnings, which the present Chinese leaders seem to have understood.

(7) Final Remarks: Some Peculiarities of Corruption in contemporary China

          Accessing the Chinese market is still different from accessing markets in western capitalist countries, because in China very often the sons and daughters of high-rank politicians (the so-called “red princelings”) have assumed the functions, which in the imperial times, since the foundation of Macao, had been occupied by the so-called compradores, who, certified by the emperor, acted as intermediaries with Europeans. Therefore since the beginning of the opening-up policy (approx. since 1982) they are highly favoured by foreigners as business partners because of their gate-keeper– resp. gate-opener-function. In the course of the progressing privatisation of the Chinese economy and the – at least formal – convergence of the state-run companies with the structure of the private sector and its uses many of these “princelings” have established their own business, which act as formally independent business partners of the “westerners”. Nevertheless their close relationship to the political decision makers on the various levels is a great advantage, especially regarding the speed and the safety of agreements. It also helps that many of the younger have studied abroad and learned a foreign language, mostly English, and became acquainted with western manners.

        In this construct, which seems pretty strange to Europeans, two principally incompatible norms clash: one is the universalistic norm with the core requirement of affective neutrality towards the business partner, which implies accepting the best offer, and the other side is the traditionally strongly binding particularistic norm, which demands that one has to take care of the family and to grant priority to all familial relations.

          Corruption emerges by the following constellation: mainly in the new class of technical-scientific intelligentsia the norms of the neutral appraisal of the individual achievement and a resulting access to leadership positions on the basis of a person’s achieved qualifications is spreading, which is compliance with universalistic norms, and requires their acceptance. Officially all party- and government bodies or their representatives accept these norms and give them highest authority and impose severe punishment in case of a violation – and sometimes inflict them in reality as long as they do not aim at a member of one of the powerful cliques because for themselves they do not comply with these standards.

          So Deng Pu Fang, son of Deng Xiao Peng and former chairman of the All Chinese Association of the Invalids has never been made accountable for that he has been at the same time managing director of several companies attached to the association and had embezzled huge sums of money [xxxiv].

          To appease the people from time to time openly publicized campaigns against the illegal enrichment in office are started in which regularly one or more offenders are found – they obviously had not enough strong >guanxi<. It was a kind of new sensation, when under the presidency of Xi Jinping for the first time close relatives of a politician still in office were brought to justice. But generally the rule is still valid that the official uncovering of breaches of norms by politicians, their confidants or close relations is an unmistakable hint that this politician will lose or has already lost his power as the downfall of the party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, in the year 2012 has made unmistakeably clear.

General literature and proofs of citations

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Bond, Michael Harris & Hwang, Kwang-kuo.1987. The Social Psychology of the Chinese People; in: The Psychology of the Chinese People, ed. Michael Harris Bond, 213 – 247.  Hong Kong: Oxford University Press[GS1] .

Caciagli, Mario. 1987. Klientelismus; in: Pipers Wörterbuch zur Politik: Dritte Welt, eds. Dieter Nohlen and Peter Waldmann, 277 – 285; München: R. Piper Verlag[GS2] .

Chan Wing Tsit. 19734. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy; Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Friedman, Edward. 1989. Decollectivization and Democratization in China; in: Problems of Communism, Vol. XXXVIII, 217 – 236, Sept.-Oct.

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Heberer, Thomas. 1991. Korruption in China; Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

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Huang Liu-Hung. 1984. A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence. A Manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China; Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

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            1 – 25; No 35; January 1996

i            As far as I have learned we don’t have enough reliable informations about the spread of corruption within the pre-Columbian American empires.

[ii]                  Universalistic and particularistic norms aim at different targets “asking” whether a norm should be applied equally to everyone (universalistic) or differently to different people (particularistic), e.g. on grounds of achieved or ascribed status or race or age etc.  The name of this pair of variables originates from the pattern variables developed by Talcott Parsons. See Schweitzer (2009), section (1.4) and Schweitzer (2022); there are more explanations; see also Schweitzer (2004).

[iii]           Which are in all probability much older. These virtues are: (1) benevolence, (2) righteousness, (3) proper rite, (4) knowledge, (5) integrity. In terms of a modern philosophy of science these are all empty formulas (Leerformeln) because one cannot identify any exact substance.

[iv]           Women do not play any role in this system except as wife or mother.

[v]           This is a typical sociomorphic explanation of the world as it has been outlined and analysed years ago by Topitsch in his essential piece of work >Vom Ursprung und Ende der Metaphysik< (first published: 1958): the conditions within the society were projected into the sky resp. the nature and from there reflected back on the earth and the society enriched with the overwhelming legitimacy of the nature. See Topitsch (1972) and (1966).

[vi]           In the >Forbidden City< in Beijing the most important building is >The Hall of Supreme Harmony<, a name which makes emphatically clear the high importance the idea of harmony (still) has in the Chinese political philosophy. At the same time one should keep in mind that states which ascribe such a high value to harmony, which implies a negation of social conflicts, have regularly developed the worst suppression systems, denying the freedom of the individual and subordinate it completely to the so-called public weal.

[vii]          These periods are usually quoted from 770-221 BC, and the beginning of the period of the Warring States is sometimes scheduled at 470 BC, sometimes at 403. In this last period from the many small states only seven had survived and were more or less permanently fighting for supremacy. To give a European relation of the timespan: This was nearly the same span as from the foundation of Rome (753 BC) to the beginning of the Second Punic War (218 BC).

[viii]         It was the time when iron-made hand tools were invented and the iron plough came into use towed by oxen instead of processing the fields with handhold hoes and that enabled plentiful harvests. Also in these times the establishment of the extensive water irrigation began by which the basis was laid for what K.A. Wittfogel had named “The Oriental Despotism”, and private property removed slowly the state owned. At the same time an increasing social differentiation gained ground.

[ix]           The Mohism originated from Mo-Zi (also Mo-Tsu or Mo-Tse = Master Mo, Latinised: Micius or Mocius). He lived in the late 5th century BC and was the founder of this philosophical school, which can be best described as utilitarianism, which centred around the concern of the well-being of the (ordinary) people. Temporarily his school had been quite influential but at the time of the unification of the empire it had already completely lost its importance.

[x]           He lived from ca. 280-233 BC. The great historian Sima Qian (1993; p. 38/9; 197/8; 236) has dedicated to him some short biographical sections in his historical records.

[xi]          Confuzius or Confucius (551 – 479 BC) is the latinised name of K´ung Fu Tzu (Kung Fuzi or Kung Fu Tse) = Master (Philosopher) Kung.

[xii]          As far as I know this book is published in English as >Han Fei Zi<. The title named above is the translation of the German publication >Die Kunst der Staatsführung< (1994).

[xiii]         For the classification of the legalism and Han Fei’s ideas see Roetz (1990), pp. 408 ff. Although the Confucian mandarins mainly had a hostile attitude towards legalism the ideas of Han Fei never disappeared completely from the agenda of Chinese political thinkers.

In this article all translations of German language texts are by the author, exceptions are mentioned.

[xiv]         He ruled the state of Qin from 247-221 BC and thereafter the unified China until his death in 210 BC. He is the initiator of the establishment of the terracotta warriors and the emperor’s tomb near the city of Xian.

[xv]          This clearly is a chauvinistic or ethnocentric point of view, which is widespread in all cultures, also in our (western) cultures, but seldom so deeply rooted as in China.

[xvi]         I always found it quite interesting that Mao Tse tung has been a great admirer of the first Chinese emperor, whose brutal practises surely served him as an example for his own actions.

[xvii]         An obsession which many Chinese are not aware of and many of them even deny. But in China a man is not only my brother but he is my younger – or little – brother, the uncle is the second uncle etc., and these kinds of arrangements in numerical orders one will find in the whole Chinese social thinking and can be seen in many actions.

[xviii]        This is the theory, if you like: the ideal but not the real live reality. This was proven in Germany e.g. by the “Kohl affair”. A normal citizen, who would refuse so obstinately to name the actors of illegal finance transactions would without any doubt have been arrested and brought to trial. In this case the German authorities did not even use the word “corruption”, let alone initiate legal measures against the German ex-chancellor.

[xix]         Clientelism is an exchange of goods and services most often for political support, occupational advancement or help in judicial matters, usually involving direct or deferred actions. In most socio-political systems, as e.g. feudalism, the mafia or an autocratic rule it is based on an asymmetric relationship between groups of actors. The two parties act as patrons or clients depending on the situation. The underlying principle of each clientelist system is an imbalanced >do ut des< (I give in order that you give): influence vs. money or a job vs. vote.

[xx]          Which is one of the main impediments for the build-up of a clean state in most so-called developing countries.

[xxi]         See Weber (1960), pp. 221, 247, 287; quoted by S. Tönnies (1995), p. 230. In literature the qadi-judiciary, however turned into positive, forms e.g. one foundation for the presentation of the criminal cases of >Judge Di<, which Robert van Gulik has described so beautifully.

[xxii]         This last section is largely a paraphrase of Bond (1992), p. 59

[xxiii]      See a comprehensive and generally still valid account for the developments at this time, May (1978).

[xxiv]        English translation from: www.marxists.org/archive/man/works/subject/quotes/ (January 2017).

[xxv]         For Mencius see the section on him in Chan (1973), pp. 49-83

[xxvi]        For these calculations see the factful presentation in Vetter (1985).

[xxvii]       The italicized words here display the modern Pinyin transcription, which is valid since 1957, the words in brackets the older according to the Wade-Giles-system. In the original article the Wade-Giles-transcription has been used due to its early publication date.

[xxviii]       Hsien Chin Hu presents in her informative article in detail the manifold meanings of the term >face< in the Chinese culture. The original article dates back to 1944, published in the American Anthropologist.

[xxix]        The candidates passed their time in single tents, to which only selected persons had access for e.g. to provide them with the essentials. These persons in special have been aims of attempted briberies by the candidates or their families mainly to smuggle information.

[xxx]        In European terms this can best be described as „social standing“.

[xxxi]        For Chinese sociologists it should be an interesting task to analyse the several links in different guanxi-relations using Granovetters (1973) approach in detecting the strength or weak ties and several micro-macro-connections. Additionally this is extremely interesting in the case of time-lagged exchanges.

[xxxii]       There does not exist a coherent view on the importance of >guanxi< for the emergence and persistence of corruption. Some scholars think >guanxi< is not relevant for the emergence of corruption, others, like me, think that this is one decisive ingredient for understanding both the emergence and as well the persistence of corruption in China. Some of these differences undoubtedly arise from different contents the term >guanxi< is ascribed by different scholars. Yan has shown that the meaning of >guanxi< varies and has different importance and appreciation in rural or urban settings even today.

[xxxiii]    This is no literary example but a real one.

[xxxiv]     To my knowledge this case has never been mentioned officially in China. But for a while it has been a favourite topic for the Hong Kong newspapers, mainly because Deng Pu Fang had often been to Hong Kong to collect donations from HK businessmen. It is said that in 1984 he collected at one single meeting more than US-$ 3 Mio for his association and most of it never appeared in the official documents.