I usually prefer not to engage in melodramatic moralizing. It’s complicated, often laughable, and getting into moral philosophy is time consuming and tiring. Moreover, who the hell am I to judge? On the other hand, there are some actions that are fairly cut and dried “bad acts,” where criticisms are quite easy to justify.
Here’s one such incident that seems obviously reprehensible, although we’ll see whether you buy into my extrapolation of this story into a nationwide moral crisis.
Without further ado, the details:
As far as land grabs go, it was quiet and secret — and the perpetrators almost got away with it.
Almost 200 Chinese city government officials stealthily changed their identities on the administrative computer system and immediately became eligible for a countryside housing plot of up to 144 square meters.
The civil servants had taken advantage of China’s long established hukou — or household registration — system, which identifies everyone as a “rural” or “urban” resident depending on their place of birth.
A group of local farmers blew the whistle on the fraud in a series of letters to the organization department of the Communist Party Committee of Yiwu city, east China’s Zhejiang Province, at the beginning of the year.
News of the scandal soon broke and caused an outcry among both rural and urban dwellers.
“It’s theft,” said rural resident He Guofeng. “The civil servants changed their registration status to get plots of land that are supposed to be allocated to farmers.”
Fellow countryside resident Yang Huiyi branded it “immoral.” “The civil servants already enjoy better social security and now they want to take from the farmers.”
Sensing rising public discontent, the city government nullified the household registration changes of 195 officials. (China Daily)
The China Daily article where that quote comes from is not even about that incident in Yiwu per se, but rather a column questioning the hukou system and whether it should be reformed or scrapped entirely. The article does not comment on the scandal itself, and I wonder whether I should assume that its author therefore found the incident unremarkable.
I find the whole story rather disheartening. I am certainly no stranger to tales of corruption, some sordid and shabby, others staggering in scope. I know about land thefts, smuggling, robbery, embezzlement (lots of that), even murder and rape. This kind of thing goes on regularly.
So what’s special about this? Well, in most cases, there are a few individuals responsible for the dirty deed. In a typical land swindle, yes, you need the cooperation of several parties most of the time. For other incidents, there might be only one or two people involved; fewer partners with whom to split the filthy lucre, and less chance that the secret will get out.
This Yiwu land theft case involved upwards of 200 government officials. I don’t know for sure whether other incidents around the country have involved that number of individuals, but it certainly seems quite high to me. It’s amazing that you could do anything with 200 people and keep it a secret, and yet according to the article, it was the local farmers (whose land was being expropriated) who blew the whistle on these officials.
Two hundred land thieves, and no one was sufficiently ashamed to do something about it? This is remarkable. I understand that many people are selfish and find it rather easy to rationalize questionable actions. Certainly in a group that large, the excuse “Everyone is doing it” would have some resonance.
When one or two people do something wrong, judgment is limited to those individuals. When over 200 people engage in such activities, then there is a much bigger problem with society. Perhaps my past resistance to conclusive statements like “China has an endemic corruption problem” was misplaced. Perhaps that is exactly what is going on, and yet (this will amuse my regular readers) my inherent optimism did not allow me to take that gloomy final step.
These days, China is all about land, housing, and money. If you don’t have those things, you are nothing. It is therefore not surprising that people are doing anything they can, including breaking the law and screwing over their fellow citizens, to acquire those material possessions.
However, if we’ve come to the point where doing these things is so commonplace that there is no longer any shame attached to the act, then perhaps the chore of cleaning things up is a much larger project than I originally thought.