Caixin
May 02, 2012 03:05 PM

The Family and Corruption

The privileged children of Chinese officials have been making the news. Whenever a scandal breaks, the internet bursts with enraged comments about the excesses of guan er dai, a shorthand term for the second generation of officials.

It's time for the government to deal with the problem of inherited privilege.

For thousands of years, Chinese society was ruled by absolute power: "He who owns the land is the ruler; whoever lives thereon is his subjects," goes a saying in classical literature. German sociologist Max Weber calls this an example of a bureaucratic patrimonial state.

China's dynastic rulers, especially those at the start of their house's reign, took care to prevent corruption by their family members, employing methods that included moral education and institutional constraints on descendants. Under the autocratic hereditary system of the Qing Dynasty, for example, the "children of the Eight Banners" – a lineage system of the Manchu people – inherited their privilege but also had to obey strict rules set by the government.

Communist revolutionaries in 20th-century China won the support of the people by rallying against feudalism and elitism. Since the founding of the People's Republic, the government has worked to abolish inherited privilege and fulfill its pledge to serve the people, knowing well that corruption threatens the success of the red revolution.

But even in the new China, rooting out the abuse of power by family members of officials has proved difficult, despite the vigilance of successive party leaders. The scandals of recent years make this clear.

The problem itself has become more complex as the economy opens up to market forces. In a "market economy" with few effective curbs on government influence, the state has a hand in most aspects of the economy. Such power creates a kind of crony capitalism that greatly benefits those who know how to work the system. And family members are often implicated in cases of official corruption.

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