Paying for Honesty?

Civil servants in China are so poorly paid that many believe it has become a major root of corruption. As the Chinese government intensifies its anti-corruption efforts, it has started to consider a pay raise for all civil servants.

At the end of last year, Justice Minister Zhang Fusen revealed that the Ministry of Justice was considering paying judicial officials more money than ordinary civil servants. He said the pay should be high enough to prevent corruption and ensure the constant honesty of judicial officials. This past March, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji announced a plan to raise the pay of civil servants this year. The pay raise scheme has already been implemented, though the raise is not as steep as people had expected.

After a dramatic institutional reform that slashed the number of government workers in half, China still has more than 5 million civil servants.

While the pay raise is welcomed by civil servants, the general public is asking: How big a role can high pay play in maintaining a clean government? Can high pay make a clean government? Is the high pay policy consistent with the Party’s principle of serving selflessly for the people?

Kong Qingyuan (member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference): Civil servants are also ordinary people who need to raise families. Therefore their salaries should not only be raised, but also should be raised by a larger margin.

The salaries of civil servants should be raised by 500 to 1,000 yuan to reach society’s medium income level. The pay raise has become an issue as China’s institutional reform deepens. If one person is doing work that used to be done by three, he or she should get the salary for three. The pay raise is a good starting point in furthering institutional reform. If well done, it may have significant impact on China’s long-term stability.

Wu Jie (deputy to the National People’s Congress): Increasing pay is not a simple issue. It should be linked with other issues such as separation of government functions from business management, institutional reform, supervision over government officials, reform of the personnel system, the establishment of a hiring and firing mechanism and anti-corruption endeavor. A pay raise should be implemented along with intensified anti-corruption efforts and an escalated reform process. Only in this way can the overall quality of civil servants be improved.

Zhao Xiang (deputy director of the Politics and Law department of the Legal Daily): To some extent, high pay can help maintain a clean government. However, I don’t think our country is ready for this because the state doesn’t have adequate financial strength to give high pay to an increasingly inflated contingent of civil servants. Statistics show that China’s spending on administrative management was 440 million yuan in 1980, or 30 percent of total financial spending. By 1991, the figure rose to 140.9 billion yuan, 37 percent of the total. By 1996, the figure reached 300 billion yuan. This is really a huge expense. If the funding problem remains unresolved, it will be impossible to implement a high pay policy.

In addition, the state should slim down government agencies and improve the quality of civil servants. Government workers should pass qualification examinations and an efficient mechanism should be put in place to retain the qualified and eliminate the unqualified.

Zhang Shuyi (professor from China University of Politics and Law): “High pay for incorruptibility” is a straightforward and realistic proposal, but it is also a very dangerous idea.

Without high pay the government won’t be clean, but the government won’t necessarily be clean even with high pay. Why are the civil servants in Western countries paid so much? One of the reasons is that most of the people serving in public positions are social elite. The judges in Britain and the United States normally have obtained their current positions after practicing law for decades. This determines the huge preliminary input for civil servants.

The judges are accorded the responsibility of determining right from wrong. If there is no order in the court, there will be no order in society. If law is not observed in the court, it won’t be observed anywhere else. Given this, it is necessary to give civil servants high pay.

However, “high pay for incorruptibility” is also a very dangerous idea because it oversimplifies the problem. Corruption is not rooted in money. It is associated with personal morals and problems with the system. To eliminate corruption simply with higher pay will just push up the price of a bribe—for instance, from the original 5,000 yuan to 10,000. Given this, I don’t think high pay can make an incorruptible government.

Dong Aiping (deputy Party secretary in Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate): The notion of “high pay for incorruptibility” can be misleading. Currently, judicial officers and other civil servants are generally poorly paid. Improving their remuneration will be of great significance to building a clean government and promoting economic development.

In accordance with the distribution principle of a socialist country, the income level of civil servants should be neither the same nor much higher than that of ordinary people.

It is very hard to figure out an exact salary level for civil servants. But I think it should be at least enough to prevent civil servants from being bought off by a few cartons of cigarettes, several bottles of liquor or a free meal.

Why is there so much embezzlement and bribery in China? The reason is that an official can be bought off with just a few thousand yuan. If civil servants’ salaries increase, the cost of bribery will increase several times. For instance, a public prosecutor who is paid 100,000 yuan a year won’t be bought off with 500,000 yuan, or even 1 million yuan. The reason is: he can make that amount of money in just a few years. Therefore, it is not worth it for him to take the risk of imprisonment to illegally get that money. How many people are able to afford 500,000 to 1 million yuan in bribes? As the cost of bribes rises, the number of incidents of bribery decreases. This in turn cuts the cost for enterprises and increases state revenues.

What amount of salary is considered high? There is no exact figure available. It is reported that the salaries of CIA agents are not high by US standards. With their salaries, they definitely cannot afford sporty cars and luxurious villas.

There is no limit to human desire. Although remuneration in developed countries and regions is much higher than in China, corruption still exists. Given this, I really doubt that high pay alone will eliminate corruption.

For the convenience of supervision and management, I think we should translate subsidies and privileges of senior civil servants—such as housing and chauffeured cars—into salary. In addition, we can also borrow from the Western practice of establishing an “incorruptibility fund”, an insurance type fund founded by both government and individual civil servants. When a civil servant retires with no record of corrupt activities, he is repaid the money he put into the fund.

When it comes to maintaining a clean government, I think there are still lots of things to do and lots of problems to consider.

Wu Xiaofang (judge of the No.1 Civil Court of the Supreme People’s Court): This is an era of market economy. Since we don’t live in a vacuum, we need to raise our children and support our aging parents. This makes income a practical issue that we cannot avoid.

Currently, most countries give their civil servants or judicial workers very good remuneration. In Singapore, civil servants generally hold this attitude toward corruption: they have no need, no desire and no guts to do it. First, they don’t need bribes because they are paid very well and have everything they want—houses, cars, and so on. Second, they don’t want to take bribes because they are afraid of losing their current positions, which have been obtained through hard effort. Third, they dare not get involved in corruption because of the harsh punishment.

In some of our poor areas, some courts have hardly enough money to pay their staff. Sometimes the judges themselves have to pay in advance for their business trips. I have read some really sad cases. In one backward area, a judge forged a legal document for just 10,000 yuan. In recent years, many of the bribery cases involving judicial officials were worth a mere 10,000 yuan.

For the same case, a judge earns a fixed monthly salary of more than 1,000 yuan while a lawyer may get 1 million yuan. Such a contrast naturally upsets us since we are as well educated and capable as the lawyers.

We understand that the state is financially strapped. But if it has the financial capacity to give civil servants higher pay, we will be very pleased to see that happen.

On the other hand, however, I don’t think higher pay will necessarily help build a clean and honest government. Although the civil servants and presidents in some countries are given very good remuneration, they still take bribes because human greed for money is endless.

Though living in a market economy era, we still need a lofty vision and faith. For example, judges may simply resign to become lawyers, who are paid much higher. But most of them have chosen to stay because they are proud of their profession.

For me, I really feel a sense of achievement when I sit on the bench to deliver a fair judgment on a case. This can never be measured by money.

Lei Shijun (deputy to the National People’s Congress): I used to be a professional in the technology field. After I became a civil servant, my income decreased by half. Such a difference in income definitely has negative effects on retaining and absorbing high-quality personnel to serve the government.

Given this, I think it is necessary to raise the pay for civil servants. However, I disagree with the view of “high pay for incorruptibility.” How high should a salary be to maintain a clean government? There is an old Chinese saying: “Nothing can be done without money, but money cannot do everything.” Higher pay doesn’t necessarily bring more honesty.

Li Changdao (member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference): Civil servants definitely need to get a pay raise. But it is impossible to realize “high pay for incorruptibility” even if their salary is increased 10 times. I think it is more appropriate to say “good pay for incorruptibility.” High pay may encourage honesty to some extent, but only the law can root out corruption.

Zhang Tongmeng (member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference): China is still a developing country, therefore it is impossible to realize “high pay for incorruptibility.” Instead, we should advocate “adequate pay for incorruptibility.” There are some regular patterns in the occurrence of corruption, for instance, the “26 phenomenon” (a high incidence rate of corruption among people who are 26 years old), the “39 phenomenon”, the “59 phenomenon”, etc. We should draw lessons from such phenomena in order to prevent corruption. Currently, we are focusing more on strengthening the external supervision mechanism. But I think the internal mechanism should also be improved. For instance, we may promote the education of professional ethics and raise the remuneration of retired civil servants. If there are still people committing corrupt activities, we should introduce more severe penalties.

Cheng Duanhong (associate professor in the Law School of Peking University): The notion of “high pay for incorruptibility” may mislead people into thinking that government workers will be honest with high pay and will become dishonest without high pay. If we have to pay lots of money for the honesty of civil servants, people might compete more fiercely to be government officials, whose positions already give them perks.

When people advocate “high pay for incorruptibility”, are they really concerned about corruption or the low income of civil servants? Are they merely trying to raise the salary of civil servants under the name of fighting corruption?

We should face this reality: How big a proportion does the high-income class make up in Chinese society? If the majority still lives at a level much lower than that of civil servants, the latter should not cry for high pay if they don’t want to upset the general public.

(Beijing Review 06/14/2001)

In This Series

Former Mayor Under Investigation for Alleged Corruption

First Anti-Corruption TV Channel Opens

Official Charged With Bribes

Top Customs Chief Charged

Former Public Security Official Awaits Trial

Beijing Recovers 580 Million Yuan in Anti-Corruption Drive

Teamwork Fights Against Corruption

Former Mayor Sentenced to Imprisonment

1,517 Court Staff Found Violating Law



Web Link