China’s Long History of Rampant Corruption

Xi regards fighting corruption as his priority in his first speech after being elected general secretary

In his first speech after being elected general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping mentioned four tricky issues he had to deal with: corruption, being divorced from the mass of people, formalism and bureaucratism. At that time, corruption is so rampant that it seemed impossible to overcome.

In fact, corruption was an inveterate serious problem always difficult to overcome in Chinese history. As far back as in Song Dynasty (960-1279), Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) encouraged people to study hard to become rich through an official career with a poem containing the sentence “There is gold house in books.” For an official, the shortcut to get a gold house is corruption. No wonder, corruption was rampant during Huizong’s reign.

Like European colonists who conquered other nations to rob them of wealth, Mongolians conquered China’s Song Dynasty to fleece Chinese people. They employed Chinese scholars as their officials and demanded bribes from them. Mongolians’ Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) became the most corrupt dynasty in Chinese history.

Zhu Yuanzhang, who drove away the Mongolians and found the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), hated corruption bitterly due to his poor peasant origin. He killed lots of corrupt officials including his loyal followers who had helped him establish his dynasty but was frustrated that he was unable to eliminate corruption in spite of the killing.

Ming official Hai Rui (1514-1587) earned a reputation for his honesty and fight against corruption. When he was a high local official, he did force Xu Jie, the emperor’s chief adviser (equivalent to prime minister), to return half of the 240,000 mu (one mu is about 666 square meters) of land Xu’s family had grabbed from common people and punished Xu’s sons and brother for that, but he was at that time but a province-level official, unable to deal with the problem of corruption in the entire nation. However, Xu’s family’s grabbing of so much land with its official power, proved how serious corruption was at that time. But according to Chinese historians Xu was not a bad official in the history of Ming Dynasty. Certainly there were lots of officials much worse than Xu.

The rampant corruption in Ming and Ching Dynasties caused Hai Rui to be famous in Chinese history.

Corruption in the initial period of Ching Dynasty (1636-1912) was not serious as Qing rulers were an alien race other than Han, the major race in China. Han officials did not dare to be corrupt under the cruel rule of an alien race. However, when Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) put his corrupt close friend Heshen (1750-1799) in charge of China’s administration, Heshen accumulated 900 million catties of silver through corruption. At that time, due to backward technology, silver is a rare precious metal used as currency in China. There was but 20 million catties of silver in treasury.

Heshen’s huge wealth was mostly bribes from other officials, who certainly had to get more illegal income than the bribes they gave Heshen. The entire official system had thus been corrupted by Heshen. Chinese people lived in misery due to the corruption.

Qianlong’s successor Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820) put Heshen to death and confiscated all his property for corruption but failed to overcome rampant corruption in his official system as he was unable to overcome their strong resistance. So were his son and grandson Emperors Daoguang (1820-1850) and Xianfeng (1850-1861).

The corruption plus foreign aggression gave rise to the nationwide rebellion of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1851 to 1864.

However, official corruption remained rampant afterwards even in the Republic of China (1912-1949) on Chinese mainland after the Qing Dynasty.

According to the above history, it seems that once corruption has become rampant, elimination of corruption is simply impossible.

To some extent, Mao’s Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns and Four Cleanups Movement indeed eliminated corruption left by KMT in China but due to officials’ excessive power since the Cultural Revolution, a new form of corruption, the malpractice of abusing power for personal gains, has emerged and soon become rampant.

In the era of reform and opening up, the malpractice has developed into collusion between officials and businessmen.

When Xi declared his first priority was to deal with the tricky issue of rampant corruption, no corrupt officials were afraid. Xi had just taken office without powerbase.

Later, Xi indeed punished powerful retired high officials and generals for corruption, but what he did was regarded as power struggle by some analysts.

What has Xi achieved in fighting corruption? Can power struggle overcome rampant corruption?

Detailed description of the fight and power struggle will be given in my next few posts.

Article by Chan Kai Yee


3 Comments on “China’s Long History of Rampant Corruption”

  1. Steve says:

    Like any other nation – education, fairness and rule of law, irrespective of political governance is the only way to suppress corruption. Bribery, stealing of national assets and abuse of authority is one form of corruption. Illegal invasion of foreign nations by war and massacre of civilians and declining a weaker nation to poverty and stealing of foreign assets are also corruption.

    Power struggle cannot overcome rampant corruption, only by the nation’s education on fairness and rule of law can suppress Greed and Self benefit.

    President Xi has enforced the appropriate laws and creating new laws to control corruption and bring those thieving scoundrels to justice. He is doing a marvellous job, but there is still more to be done on peoples awareness to corruption. When we think of it, Corruption is basically Greed and Delusion. People in government need to be better educated, civilians need to be aware of the consequences of rampant corruption as it can also bring down a nation, especially those who abuse their power of authority in government.


  2. Simon says:

    Its is corruption that help defeat the Kumingtang.


    • Joseph says:

      True, but only because it was Kuomintang who was rampant with corruption. There was a Kuomintang story about corruption in the fall of Beijing/Beiping. A Kuomintang general was suspicious that one of Chiang Kaishek’s trusted general, Yan Youwen was a Communist spy simply because Yan was the only one that was clean and never corrupt among corrupt Kuomintang generals. Chiang was angry with the suggestion that his generals were a bunch of corrupts and considered them all clean. It turned out that Yan was indeed a Communist spy and he persuaded Beiping commander, general Fu Zuoyi to surrender. Beiping was hence taken without a single loss of life plus half a million army effectively defecting to the Communist PRC side.