01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blagojevich and Beijing: Political Corruption in China and America

Unless you've been living under a rock, it would be hard to avoid the whirlwind of scandal currently engulfing Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. While his predicament is unique, political corruption is nothing novel in the US or China.

"All of the corrupt officials should be rounded up," exclaimed Mr. Li, a Beijing shop-owner. Over dinner, Li lectured me on corruption in China and what it means to him. While China ranks only a tepid #72 on the Transparency International corruption rankings, corruption is rampant here and getting worse. Li confirmed as much, lamenting the passing of the Mao-era when corrupt officials were simply shot on the spot. He whimsically regaled me with the story of Mao Ze Dong having his own bodyguard executed for corruption to send a message. Today, the punishment for corruption (technically still a capital crime) is usually a fine and/or jail time.

"What's wrong with the bullet?" he continued, "has it gone out of style?" I could hardly contain myself. Here was a former Red Guard who had seen his education curtailed at 12 because of the Cultural Revolution and his growth stunted because his subsistence on a diet of bark during the Great Leap Forward, waxing nostalgic over the "good-old" Mao years. Despite the fact that he has seen his standard of living grow and his income soar in recent years, he remains deeply enraged with the extent of political corruption in China -- an anger shared by many of his compatriots.

This is a feeling that is shared in the United States. Despite our comfortable perk at #20 on the corruption perception index, names like Jack Abramoff, Randy Cunningham, Bob Ney, Ken Lay, William Jefferson, and now Rod Blagojevich suggest America is far from perfect. One needs only to look at the effective use of Nancy Pelosi's "culture of corruption" slogan in the 2006 midterm election to see how incensed Americans can become at influence peddling. While neither country is the paragon for clean governance, the issue is one that has deep resonance on both sides.

Yet our own actions do not always reflect our indignation at political malfeasance. Americans decry corruption in government (see: Delay, Tom), yet in our day-to-day lives, the very same influence peddling that would be seen as corruption on a grander scale is somehow tolerated. Are we surprised when a family who donates a new gym to Harvard gets their son into the school? Are we surprised when someone gets a job when their uncle is a partner at the very same firm? Power and money and power still speak very loudly, despite our purported ideals of a meritocratic society.

China is not much different. The Chinese even have a word for the effective exploitation of connections and networks: guanxi. Instead of tiptoeing around the idea as in the States, in China, exploiting guanxi is not only acceptable but culturally expected. Indeed, the first month of my work as a Fulbright Scholar involved currying up enough guanxi to even begin the research I came to accomplish. While a lot of the importance of guanxi owes itself a whole host of sociological rationales, China, like America, very obviously has a level of comfort with a certain amount of winks and nods on a small scale. This is not only not wrong, it would be surprising if it were any other way.

On both sides, we accept and benefit from the exploitation of power and influence on a low level, yet somehow are flabbergasted when it reflects itself in our political sphere. We expect our donation to our alma mater to help with our child's admissions chances at a top school yet somehow think a politician is immune to influence after he or she gets a check for a couple grand. To be sure, there is a very real distinction between extorting a bribe for a Senate seat and using connections to find a job. That being said, most of the corrupt behavior that goes on in Washington or Beijing--defense contracting or pork barrel spending come to mind--is not as clumsily blatant as Mr. Blagojevich's yet still is considered unacceptable by the public. It is this more subtle and questionable use of influence and connections that greases the wheels not only in government, but much of our daily lives. Somehow it is acceptable in the latter but not the former.

The same contradiction exists in China. The Chinese want to benefit from personal connections and cultivated relationships in daily life, yet are flummoxed when an official awards a contract to a family member or friend. How can either the Chinese or the Americans become so moralistic and indignant when their leaders reflect a type of horse-trading that we accept and engage in? How can we expect our elected officials to espouse a moral purity that we ourselves lack? Admittedly, what constitutes corruption is very different in both China and the United States. However, relative to each population's own actions and concept of corruption, political maneuvering in Beijing and Washington not only unsurprising but inevitable. Our exasperation is, therefore, comical at best and hypocritical at worst.

While corruption scandals come and go on both sides of the Pacific, it is worth thinking about just how consistent our societies are in regards to the use of influence, money, and power in obtaining what we want. Maybe we as a society are OK with having favors traded and deals brokered in less than transparent situations. If so, we should not be surprised when our elected officials follow suit. While Blago's fate is sealed, the oftentimes hypocritical view we have towards our elected officials need not be.

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