In its quest for global power, the Chinese government has turned the relationship between the briber and bribee in corruption upside down. Traditionally, corruption has referred to individuals or organizations that bribe state officials to sell public goods for personal gain. In such a relationship, the briber is an individual or an organization such as a private firm, and the bribee is a government official. In almost all known cases of bribery-corruption, the corrupt official is always the one who receives, not pays, the bribes.
Now, let us switch the roles of the briber and bribee: let the briber be the government of one country, and let the bribee be individuals, organizations, and governments of other countries. In other words, let us add the following to the domain of bribery-corruption relationship: the government of one country bribes the rest of the countries of the world in order to influence their attitudes and behavior.
The effort by China’s government to bribe the world is large in scale, broad in scope, and deep in effects. The whole world has felt it.
Does such a bribery-corruption relationship exist? What motivates the government of a country to bribe the rest of the world, and how can it afford to do it?
The following efforts by the Chinese government may shed light on these questions.
1. Paying the rest of the world to learn Chinese. Since 2005, the Chinese government has spent billions of dollars to set up Confucius Institutes to teach and promote Chinese language and culture in the world. As of 2017, there were 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius Classrooms in 146 countries. This generosity had puzzled the world due to the following facts. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which maintains a dictatorial rule over China, is not known for philanthropic activities; China’s per capita income is much lower than that of many recipient countries; and most ironically, the Chinese Communist Party was founded on an anti-Confucius platform and has destroyed most of his legacies. The true purpose of this effort, as the following two quotations show, is to shape the views of the rest of the world according to the Chinese Communist Party. In 2010, Liu Yunshan, then the Minister of Propaganda of the CCP, said, “We should actively carry out international propaganda battles on issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights, and Falun Gong. Our strategy is to proactively take our culture abroad.… We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.” One year later, Li Changchun, then the CCP leader in charge of ideology, explained that “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
2. Paying foreigners to study in China. The Chinese government sets aside billions of dollars to support foreign students to study in China. In 2019, the Chinese state allocated $5.9 billion for foreign students, a 15 percent increase from 2018. A foreign undergraduate student could get $9,108–$10,185 per year, while a foreign doctoral student could get as much as $15,353 per year. The goal of this effort is to train these foreign students to be future leaders in their home countries. A recent editorial published in the party’s official newspaper Global Times states that “investing in foreigners to study in China can make them pro-China and therefore has a long-run return.… [I]t proves to be an effective way to promote China’s national interest with a high rate of success.”
3. Paying to influence the influencers. Evidence shows that the Chinese government uses money in various forms, along with some innovative methods, to influence the organizations and people who influence public opinion and policies in other countries. For example, in the U.S., the Chinese government uses its vast resources to influence American government at various levels and branches, as well as the Chinese-American community, universities, think tanks, corporations, and the technology and research sector. The general pattern of the influence by the Chinese government in the U.S. is that the former gives economic resources to the entities in the latter so that the recipients will support the Chinese government agenda, or will, at least, be less critical of the giver. For example, the China–United States Exchange Foundation, which is backed by the Chinese government, has given money to numerous U.S. institutions, including Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, the Center for American Progress, the East-West Institute, the Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. Through its “Thousand Talents Program,” the Chinese government gives full-time scholars in foreign institutes another position and salary in China so that they can “double-dip.” As Josh Rogin wrote in Washington Post, “By influencing the influencers, China gets Americans to carry its message to other Americans.”
The Chinese government is also making a major effort to acquire and control overseas news media, especially Chinese language media. The Chinese government is also influencing international organizations. In a 2017 article entitled “How China Swallowed the WTO,” Wall Street Journal reporter Jacob Schlesinger described a beautiful garden: “Geneva — Inside the cement compound housing the World Trade Organization lies a colorful Chinese garden of cultivated rocks, arches and calligraphy.” The garden, continued the writer, was a gift from the Chinese commerce ministry.
4. Using foreign aid. From 2000 to 2014, the Chinese government provided aid totaling $350 billion to 140 countries. Since 2009, it accelerated its aid, and now the Chinese government is the largest aid-giver in the world. China’s rapid rise in foreign aid is particularly striking, given that the per-capita income in China was quite low ($2,695 in 2007) with 27 to 100 million people under poverty line ($1.90/day). This is why global generosity by the Chinese government raises suspicion in the world and angers many people in China. The Chinese people have coined a term for this lavish spending: “da sa bi.” Its literal meaning is “greatly throwing money,” but it sounds like the Beijing colloquial term “da sha bi,” which means “a great fool.” Apparently, judging from the increasing trend of its foreign aid, the Communist Party believes the money is well spent.
5. Corrupting countries through the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2013, the Chinese government initiated this very ambitious plan to help countries build their infrastructures, the largest state-sponsored project that the world has ever seen. More than $1 trillion will be spent through state-subsidized loans, investments, and gifts in participating countries. As of 2017, it is estimated to have included more than 68 countries, which accounted for 65 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of the global GDP. Typical financial and economic arrangements for the initiative are the following: the Chinese government will fund the infrastructure construction by loans, which will be paid back by the recipient country, and which are secured by land or other valuable assets or rights of the recipient country. A report by Fitch Ratings believes that the Chinese government’s “Political motivation for projects could trump commercial logic and real demand for infrastructure.” According to CNN, “most analysts agree that, for all its rhetoric about trade and development, [the Belt and Road] is primarily a political project.” Its aim is “to win friends and influence people.” Recent reports have shown evidence or suspicions that some of the projects were purposely overpriced, so that a portion of the funds could be used for payment to officials in host countries. According a report by the Center for a New American Security, “Belt and Road projects have often involved payoffs to politicians and bureaucrats. Project that are financially or environmentally unsound are sometimes approved as a direct result.” Such corruption has been reported in Malaysia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Emily Feng wrote in the Financial Times that “China exports its authoritarian model.… Beijing’s global-facing strategy will only amplify its ability to use economic might to muzzle freedom of speech and advocacy with its trade partners.”
Why does the Chinese state want to influence the world? Unlike political parties in mature democracies, the Chinese Communist Party is a Leninist party with the following characteristics: (1) it is based on the communist ideology, (2) it gives itself the exclusive mandate to rule, (3) it relies on exclusive membership, (4) it is a highly centralized organization with a central committee, a politburo, and a general secretariat that holds unchecked supreme power, and (5) it has three key departments: the organizational department, the propaganda department, and the united front work department. Under these principles, the party designs and controls all of the functional and geographic sections of the government, giving the party control over the state. To maintain one-party rule, the party cannot allow judicial independence. The party-state follows rule through law as opposed to the rule of law; namely, the party uses the law subjectively and selectively for the purpose of maintaining its rule.
Domestically, the party-state brutally suppresses any dissenting views. For example, it arrested the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and let him die in prison. It employs a large force of neighborhood and internet surveillance, and deploys cutting-edge technology throughout the country. It also bars Google, Facebook, YouTube, and most NGOs from operating in China.
Internationally, the ideology and the political system that the party has imposed upon China is fundamentally different from, and is in conflict with, those of the democracies. This has proven to be very troublesome for the party because China is highly open and is heavily reliant on world trade. Its people travel all over the world, and hundreds of millions of foreigners, many from democracies, visit China. This large-scale and high-frequency interaction between the two systems makes the friction and confrontation particularly acute and highly visible worldwide. Morally, democracy and respect for individual freedom and the rule of law are viewed as just, fair, and superior, whereas dictatorship, repression, and rule through law are viewed as unjust, inhumane, and undignified. Unless the party shuts China off from international exchange, which it cannot afford to do since China’s economy depends on trade, the friction and frequent confrontation will continue. China’s opening-up has greatly enabled the Chinese people to learn and to experience democracy, as well as respect for human rights and the rule of law, in other countries. Ridiculing the dictatorship, although privately, has become a daily routine among millions of Chinese and has created a huge headache for the party. Just randomly peek into any WeChat group (the most popular online chat app in China), and one can see numerous jokes about the party leaders.
To resolve this friction, the party-state has, theoretically, two main options. The first is to embrace the value of democracy, individual freedom, universal human rights, and the rule of law. This would eventually lead to democratization, a necessary step in enabling China to become a full and responsible member of the international community. This would also mean that the party would relinquish its absolute rule. But the party has made it clear that it will never do this, thus ruling out this option.
The second option is to change the world, according to the party’s view. If other countries, especially the democracies, accept, or at least acquiesce to the ideology and practices of the party, “tell China’s story well” (in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words), and do not criticize its human rights record in international agencies such as the United Nations, then the party-state will gain a more positive image globally. If foreign countries stop criticizing the undemocratic practices in China, the people in China would have less reason to criticize them as well, which would alleviate the headaches of the party and improve the party’s legitimacy. Therefore, for the party this is the best option and the fundamental reason to bribe the world, and the party has found a powerful tool at its disposal — money. China’s economy is the world’s largest (with $23 trillion based on PPP), and the party-state controls about 56 percent of the GDP through taxes, fees, and state-owned enterprises, giving it the largest war chest for bribing the world.
Some may argue that we have already used “sharp power” to describe the influence of the party-state, so why do we need to call its influence bribery? First, bribery is bribery; calling it by any other name does not change the fact that what the party-state does — using money to buy influence — is bribery. Second, unlike “sharp power” or “influence,” bribery is plainly wrong and therefore should be stopped.
One could argue that the U.S. has done the same; namely, it has used its resources to “buy off” the whole world since the end of the World War II. But there are several key differences between the two countries in using their own resources in other countries.
First and most fundamentally, the two countries have categorically different political and economic systems. These systems define their different methods of funding foreign aid. The United States is a mature democracy. One of its most important principles of allocating government resources is that the branch of the government that approves the budget, such as the Congress (or parliament), is separated from the branch that spends it, the executive branch. Not only do the two branches keep close checks on each other, but they both must also be accountable to the taxpayers whose votes determine their fates. If the taxpayers/voters believe that their taxes are being used to bribe foreign nations, they can voice their opposition and can ultimately change the practice. Thus, in the long run, such bribery of the world by their government can be effectively corrected by the political mechanisms that are built into a mature democracy. Furthermore, in a mature democracy with a free market such as the United States, the line between the government and the economy is reasonably clear: the government cannot take resources from firms for bribing foreign nations. Neither can it ask firms to bribe foreign nations on its behalf (whereas the Chinese party-state can use resources from firms for bribery).
Second, the two nations have different ideologies. The official ideology of the American government, and of the governments of all mature democracies, is to respect universal human rights and to obey the rule of law, as manifested in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal … with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is not only the official ideology of the government, but it is also the ideology of the American people. The government is merely created by the people in order to safeguard their rights. Projecting this ideology internationally, the United States, either explicitly or implicitly, expects or prefers that other nations, including aid recipients, respect universal human rights and the rule of law.
The effort by China’s government to bribe the world is large in scale, broad in scope, and deep in effects. The whole world has felt it. For example, we have seen presidential candidates and a former president in the U.S. saying that China does not pose a threat to the U.S., and the Voice of America cancel programs deemed offensive by the Chinese government. Many CEOs of multinational corporations are vocal in criticizing their own democratic governments and remain silent on human rights abuse by China’s party-state.
As the Chinese economy’s growth rate outpaces the growth rates of both the U.S. economy and the world’s economy, it can be expected that the bribery effort by the party-state of the world will grow with a high rate, as well. If more and more countries, governments, universities, as well as international organizations, accept the “international governance” of the Chinese party-state, and support or acquiesce to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and its rule through law, the world will suffer a major setback in its progress toward democratization, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
The world should recognize this type of corruption, in which a state, using the resources of the country it rules, bribes the entire world in order to gain influence. International organizations such as Transparency International, the most prominent watchdog for corruption, should include this type of corruption in their definition of bribery and corruption, should educate the world about its forms and consequences, and should provide policy recommendations for the world to fight against it. The United Nations, the World Bank, the WTO, and other agencies should all recognize this type of corruption and its adverse impact on the world’s political and economic order.
Individual countries, especially the democracies, should recognize the damaging effects of this type of corruption and should develop policies and legal measures to fight against it. They should legally recognize the threat and take legal measures to address it, such as demanding greater transparency for organizations and individuals that receive direct or indirect funding from foreign governments or their affiliates, requesting organizations and individuals working for or promoting the interests of foreign governments or their affiliates to register as foreign agents, and taking legal actions against state-sponsored bribery behavior.
The effort by the party-state to bribe the world does not benefit the ordinary people in China, and this is why the Chinese people fume about it and call it “da sa bi” (greatly throwing money). Cleaning up this kind of bribery-corruption behavior will no doubt greatly benefit the Chinese people, since it will free significant resources, which can then be spent on the welfare of the Chinese people. Cleaning up state-sponsored bribery will also benefit the officials of the party-state, as they will not be viewed as bribers and will gain more respect from the international community.
In their report, “Chinese Influence & American Interests,” a group of China experts recommended three measures to deal with the undue influence of the party-state: transparency, integrity, and reciprocity, which can be used to counter the party-state’s bribery.
Transparency is an effective tool in fighting corruption. Exposing the money transaction and the associated influence peddling is not only the most powerful weapon to fight against bribery and corruption, it is also the most effective way to defend democratic institutions.
Upholding integrity is the very foundation of democracy and the rule of law. More concretely, integrity will help the potential recipients of state-sponsored bribery to refuse it.
Demanding that the party-state be reciprocal with respect to other countries’ access to China is reasonable and effective. For example, the international community should be able to disseminate knowledge of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law freely in China, just as the party-state is free to promote its ideology and “global governance” in other countries.
Shaomin Li is Eminent Scholar and Professor of International Business at Old Dominion University. His most recent article, “Leading by bribing: evidence from China,” is published in the International Journal of Emerging Markets.
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