Because it looks good. Photo by Trevira
There’s a thin line between corruption and a favor, and what you call it depends on where you stand. Corruption is an obvious social ill – weakening institutions, laws and nations. However, favors are pretty much expected among family and friends. ‘Corruption’ on a personal level is often the expected and even noble thing to do. This comes after reading the book Wild Swans, about revolutionary China. In that book I found myself hating the girl’s father for being so rigid and wishing for a little favoritism. The most obvious example was refusing a better hospital for his pregnant and TB infected wife. As governor he had the rank to get better treatment, but he demanded the same. As a reader, however, unsure of whether the character would live or die, I was furious and wanted him to give a little. In that moment I understood why corruption, on a personal level, often makes sense.
An Incorruptible Man
As Jung Chang’s book says,
When he first returned to Yibin, his family and old friends all expected him to help them. In China it was assumed that anyone in a powerful position would look after their relatives. In China it was assumed that anyone in a powerful position would look after their relatives. There was a well-known saying: ‘When a man gets power, even his chickens and dogs rise to heaven.’ But my father felt that nepotism and favoritism were the slippery slope to corruption, which was the root of all the evils of the old China. He also knew that the local people were watching him to see how the Communists would behave, and that what he did would influence how they regarded communism (pg 239)
However commendable this may be, I found myself siding with his family on numerous disputes. He drove in a jeep for a long, miserable 30 day march while his (unbeknownst) pregnant wife walked. Later he refused to give her a ride back from a move theatre and she miscarried in great pain. He was right to refuse official privileges to his wife, but to that extent?
Communist officials were also given gradings which determined how they could travel and live. To avoid any impropriety he downgraded his family, his wife to Grade 17 (one being good).
Thanks to my fathers actions in 1953, almost forty years later she was one rung too low to travel in comfort in her own country. She could not stay in a hotel room which had a private bath, as those were for Grade 13 and above.
Along the way he also denied promotion to his brother, donated the family’s large house to a group of teachers, and basically alienated his whole family. “But my father was unrepentant. He was fighting his own crusade against the old ways, and he insisted on treating everyone by the same criteria. But there was no objective standard for fairness, so he relied on his own instincts, bending over backwards to be fair. He did not consult his colleagues, partly because he knew that none of them would ever tell him that a relative of his was undeserving”
This may have been the right thing to do, but for the first half of the book I thought of him as a pedantic villian, denying basic comfort to his family. I wanted him to display a little favortism because everything was shit and there was no reason for his family to suffer for principle. However, what struck me was the sentence
“The very acts which infuriated my father’s family were deeply appreciated by the local population, and his reputation has endured to this day.”
So, his incorruptibility made random people happy, but he paid the price for it in his bed and home. His brother (denied a promotion) never spoke to him again and his wife threatened to divorce him. All in all it seemed like there were more forces driving him to corruption (or at least favoritism) than away from it.
The Colombo Example
In the West I was never in a position to pull strings on anything besides a sweater, but here by going out you meet people. More importantly, you meet people who have met people, etc. There is also this absurd insistence on pre-ticketing, which forms the currency of this little Monopoly game. Whenever there’s a party I either get free passes and redistribute them, or get a few distributed to me. There’s nothing wrong with it but I strangely feel a little dirty. A club is not Communist China, but it still remains that promoters distribute passes as favors, and a course of ‘Aney Machangs’ ensues and various people get in free.
On a less mundane level, I haven’t update my resume since I got here, and no one has ever asked for one, it is simply through references. Furthermore, on a press level, almost every article I’ve written for press has been for some local company (usually an advertiser) and though I often actually do like the place, a good review is always demanded. The entire entertainment and media industries are corrupt, but it doesn’t feel bad because it’s all friends and their services are ‘coincidentally’ good. The problem is that it’s getting hard to distinguish coincidence from plain fabrication.
On an even more serious level, when you’re in jail or some serious trouble, it is all about the few phone calls you can make. If you know the Officer in Charge or DIG or something you can get out, and if you don’t you can submit to the interminable grind of undue process. If you get pulled over and you have a Media or Military card or something you can walk. In court you can flash evidence of gainful employment and get a lighter sentence.
Nationally, many large contracts (Water’s Edge, those unworking lights on the way to Battaramulla) are handed out on a similar ‘Aney Machang’ model. And certain Minister’s son’s can get away with Vijaya-like excesses while the Supreme Court is full of carpark cronies that toss opposition leaders in jail and halt investigations into tsunami embezzlement.
From an abstract level of course corruption is bad, no World Bank money for you. However, day to day, it is very natural. Nobody wants to pay to get in, everyone wants to find work and no one wants to spend the night in jail. In that moment, the uncle who won’t bail you out doesn’t look ‘incorruptible’, he looks like an asshole. Relying on average people to stamp out corruption isn’t going to work because doing stuff for your friends and family is actually a nice and natural thing to do. It can get out of line like, for example, our pedigreed and possibly inbred politicians, but on the whole its a very human thing to do.
People do make phone calls, they do pull strings, and they do cock the whole system up, not because they’re bad people but because some perfectly respectable grannies and grandsons expect them to. That’s at least one thing I pulled from the Wild Swans book. It’s that corruption involves more than bad people, it involves understanding why a few very reasonable fudges here and there can amount to a global problem.