Thor's China Diary

The Bad Old Days of Planned Theft

@10 May 2000
go to end / go to China Index
Since coming to China I have been intrigued by the concept of a "planned economy". Anyone who has worked in a Chinese institution knows that whatever mechanisms it operates by, "planning" is scarcely part of the equation. Things happen constantly without warning, unannounced and without any discernible rationale. My university have just finished a week's holiday, with two weekend days worked to wrangle a clear seven days. The whole of China has just done the same, for the first time ever. Was it planned nationally? No way. Total transport chaos nation-wide. Was it planned in our institution? Nope. I found out a week before from friends, not the administration. Had my university department planned the alternate teaching days? No, nobody had thought about it. How about the International Office? They didn't know either. Eventually someone was persuaded to ring the president of the university. He stretched, yawned, and picked a couple of days out of the air. How to plan for ten thousand students and staff .... China a planned economy?? Nowhere have I ever met a bunch of people so pathologically incapable, as individuals or in a group, of planning anything.

So the idea of communist planning in China never had a chance. What WAS it all about then? That has slowly been becoming clear. A "planned" economy in the Chinese parlance means one in which every action must be sanctioned by some higher authority. The higher authority will NOT have a plan, but might be persuaded under certain circumstances to approve the action. Understand that this is a country in which the term "rule of law" was not even officially recognized until 1998. The persuasion of higher authorities means, quite simply, bribing them to approve.

An acquaintance, XM,  is optimistic about the progress of rational government in China.  I come in as a naïf and see, well, much that is disturbing. He sees where it has come from, and finds grounds for hope. The so-called command economy began to retreat from its high water mark of insanity from about 1978. The turn around was not instant. XM talks dryly about his three years from 1984 as a "cashier" -- essentially a bribe giver -- for one of Hubei's county governments. His county office in the provincial capital was very small, only five people, but critical to the welfare and survival of that county. Whatever happened in the county, from a new factory, to a widened street, to a school building extension, had to be approved by not one, but a byzantine warren of provincial, and sometimes national officials. Each official had carefully delineated turf, and a jealously guarded power to thwart initiatives of every kind. XM's job was simply to persuade these queues of officials to put their precious signatures on every activity that the county needed to function.

The tools of XM's trade were basic: a) money, lots of it, from county coffers, for bribes; b) cigarettes, provided in unlimited quantities free by the country to lubricate social exchange; c) a carefully arranged gradient of "entertainment" to encourage co-operation -- chauffeured limousines, long meals, nightclub visits etc.; d) guanxi -- an ever more tangled web of favours given and called in.

XM's masters were pleased with his work. He found it physically and morally debilitating. To function professionally he had to literally become a chain smoker and tippler. The officials he had to stroke, day in and day out, were the lowest form of life, holding the welfare of whole populations hostage and prostituting the trust that had been placed in them. Decision making was glacial, as ever more official parasites found ways to block and obstruct until they too were paid off. He gave the example of a building which the county decided to construct for its own use in the provincial capital, Wuhan. This took him eighteen months of energetic boot-licking, bribery and "entertainment" to get cleared for construction by provincial authorities.

Why is XM optimistic about progress? Well, it is not that officials have become any less rapacious. Quite the contrary. However, the intrusion of market economics at the insistence of the Central government in Beijing has meant that many activities previously requiring "approval" under the old "planned economy"  are now simply beyond the reach of obstructive officials. They have fought and are fighting this erosion of their influence with every instrument at their command, but they are slowly being forced to retreat. The retreat is uneven across China: most in evidence in the prosperous south-east, almost imperceptible in some of the poor and backward provinces of the west. What this means of course is that where corrupt officials retain their grip, China will become more and more fragmented as a national entity.

"The Bad Old Days of Planned Theft" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
go to top
  • return to Thor's China Diary index
  • Links to China-related Sites
  • go to top
  • To e-mail the editor, Thor May: press here.