In 2009 Graeme Smith published “Political Machinations in a Rural County” in The China Journal. Almost exactly a year ago John Garnaut summarized Smith’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald. As Garnaut wrote:
Benghai is the made-up name for a real and thriving county in Anhui province. A year ago I toured Benghai with Graeme Smith, a scholar at the University of Technology, Sydney. Since then, Beijing’s regular corruption crackdowns have appeared to me to be little more than pantomime, designed to reassure the public and defeat the odd political adversary.
Smith has spent four years getting to know everyone he can in Benghai and working out exactly how the money flows…
The perpetrators of corruption are rarely morally good or bad. Rather, they are playing by the unwritten rules of a system that makes them utterly dependent on the patronage of those higher up the tree – and oblivious to the needs of those below.
One reason Benghai County is doing well is that it has opened embassies in seven cities for the purpose of cultivating higher officials. ”What do you think these offices do? Hand out brochures? The money goes up, and then the money comes down,” a Benghai business source told Smith. ..
Within Benghai county, the Communist Party secretary is king. He has the final say in all personnel decisions and the interpretation of central government policy. He runs the bureaucracy like a giant franchise system.
Garnaut concludes his article with a point that is key to understanding how the Party can stay in power in spite of regular “scandals”:
Corruption and nepotism might well be the party’s single greatest public relations problem. But it is also an effective strategy for keeping cadres, bureaucrats, soldiers and business people unswervingly deferential to those above them.
China’s Communist Party has approximately 78 million members. If you assume that each member provides for 2-6 people, you have anywhere from 156 million to 468 million people who rely on the graces of the Party for their livelihoods (2-6 is a SWAG on my part; the number could easily be higher.) With so many people benefiting, the system is more stable than many observers assume. But that is also why corruption will never be eradicated; take away the monetary benefits and peoples’ attitudes may change quickly.