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Inherited privilege is a scourge of old China that must be rooted outHu Shuli says the excesses of the children of officials are fuelling outrage over the collusion of the rich and powerful, and unchecked government power is to blame03 May 2012The privileged children of Chinese officials have been making the news. Whenever a scandal breaks, the internet bursts with enraged comments about the excesses of guan er dai, a shorthand term for the second generation of officials.It’s time for the government to deal with the problem of inherited privilege.For thousands of years, Chinese society was ruled by absolute power: “He who owns the land is the ruler; whoever lives thereon is his subject,” goes a line in classical literature. German sociologist Max Weber calls this an example of a bureaucratic patrimonial state.China’s dynastic rulers, especially those at the start of their house’s reign, took care to prevent corruption by family members, employing methods that included moral education and institutional constraints on descendants. Under the autocratic hereditary system of the Qing dynasty, for example, the “children of the Eight Banners” - a lineage system of the Manchu people - inherited their privilege but also had to obey strict rules set by the government.Communist revolutionaries in 20th-century China won the support of the people by rallying against feudalism and elitism. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the government has worked to abolish inherited privilege and fulfil its pledge to serve the people, knowing that corruption threatens the success of the red revolution.But even in the new China, rooting out the abuse of power by family members of officials has proved difficult, despite the vigilance of successive party leaders. The scandals of recent years make this clear.The problem itself has become more complex as the economy opens up to market forces. In a “market economy” with few effective curbs on government influence, the state has a hand in most aspects of the economy. Such power creates a kind of crony capitalism that greatly benefits those who know how to work the system. And family members are often implicated in cases of official corruption.The family, it seems, has become a hotbed of corruption. One even finds a kind of division of labour within corrupt families, involving the wife and children, the aunts and uncles. They and a coterie of associates are involved in the trade of money for power, and vice versa, openly or surreptitiously. Backed by wealth, power becomes even more powerful, creating a vicious circle that ensures that the guan er dai also become fu er dai, the second generation of tycoons. Privilege emboldens them to be showy and ruthless.China’s Gini co-efficient, a measure of income inequality, is estimated to have reached 0.55 last year, far exceeding the accepted red line of 0.4 that warns of social instability. Income distribution is severely unbalanced, and the cause is an unequal access to opportunities, a problem perfectly illustrated by the collusion among the elites to perpetuate their wealth and power. No wonder people are outraged.The investigation of Bo Xilai for “serious disciplinary offences” by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection underlines leaders’ belief in party discipline and the rule of law. The downfall of Chen Liangyu also comes to mind. The former Shanghai party secretary and Politburo member was found guilty of taking bribes involving his wife, son and younger brother. More chillingly in Bo’s case, his wife Gu Kailai is suspected of murder over a conflict of business interests.
A key challenge of the party is to restrict the power access of party leaders’ family members. Abuse of power is against both party and state laws. There are more than 40 regulations alone limiting the commercial involvement of family members of party leaders. But, clearly, such rules are not enough. The government must act not only to treat the symptoms, but address the root causes that enable such collusion.First and foremost, authority must operate in the open. Party officials have had to declare their personal assets to the party’s disciplinary body for some time now, but the push for public disclosure has stalled. Without public scrutiny, the rule cannot be an effective curb on corruption.Some people say society is still too immature for such a rule to work. This is an excuse. The lessons of the previous scandals should push the government to roll it out soon. For a start, it can require newly promoted party cadres to disclose their assets; then the plan can be gradually extended right to the top.In the long term, a strong rule of law and the more robust supervision of government power, particularly its arbitrary power, will rein in official abuses. It is the nature of power to seek its own expansion and create opportunities for rent-seeking. The excesses of the guan er dai are just an extension of the corruption of unchecked power their parents enjoy. Only the rule of law and checks on the exercise of authority can “devalue” the currency of power so that it is less likely to harm.Upholding the rule of law would not be possible without public scrutiny. Only an effective government that abides by the rule of law, and only incorruptible leaders who welcome supervision by the people and are accountable to them, can bring hope to a people beaten down by an unfair system.This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.
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