Friday, February 14, 2014

A Case for Corruption or Charity?

Hardly the road to riches, at least officially

Pity the local civil servant in China. No, really. According to a leaked report in this article, 84% of local officials around Hunan province earn less than US$650 per month. Civil servants in other locales across the country are presumed to be paid similarly. In dispute is whether there are other official benefits (e.g. housing, medical) that augment this piddly salary. But even if there are other such perks, they are likely not to be meaningful enough to change an obvious fact - CCP officials at the local level are paid like crap. One individual is even quoted as saying that he makes less than some migrant workers. In a country where the state is considered all-knowing and all-powerful, this is rich irony indeed.

Yet, despite this circumstance, civil servant jobs are among the most sought after by university graduates in China. Why this paradox, it is easy to wonder. On the plus side of being a civil servant pencil-pusher, there are a) job security, b) prestige, c) proximity to power and d) a feel-good factor of working for the public good. But, more nefariously, there is also the darker force at work – the big “C” – that makes a civil servant’s job much more lucrative than the headline numbers suggest. For sure, the need to secure government approvals and licenses to engage in so much private enterprise makes the wooing of local officials a necessity. So occasions for bureaucrats to receive under-the-table sums and lavish entertainment have been rife and widely reported. 
Few doubt that having a more efficient public sector populated with capable and empowered individuals who are paid a fair income would be a major step in the right direction to reduce such leakage – in China and anywhere. Singapore is an often-raised example of a well-managed public sector. However, one wonders how quickly such reform is likely to happen in a ginormous place like China. A mindset shift could require a generation or two and the enduring of much social tumult. In the meantime, one has to assume that, one way or another, civil servants are going to have to find other means of scratching out a decent living in the post-communist PRC. Call it charity, if need be.

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