By Kumar David –
Guangxixue lubricated graft in Sri Lanka
Why can’t the scourge of corruption, flagrant family nepotism and rampant abuse of power everywhere be exposed in the exemplary way the Weliamuna Board of Inquiry (W-BoI) has done for Sri Lankan Airlines? All along I tamely swallowed the Prime Minister and President’s lame excuse that “Ho, haa things must be done properly; the authorities must cautiously build a strong justiciable case”. Blah, CID sloths, the tortoises in the Bribery Commission and the lame Attorney General crawl like snails, but W-BoI has shown that a no-holds-barred public inquiry, armed with a mandate to question witnesses and probe documents, can shine light, build a prima face case and urge prosecution of ex-chairman Nishantha Wickramasinghe and ex-CEO Kapila Chandrasena. A BoI is not a court of law and its findings are not conclusive but the public outcry for transparency prior to court proceedings has been sated. The findings confirm every detail of what was previous public knowledge; so many alleged cases of scandalous graft, including China financed mega-projects, are likely to be true.
Why no investigations elsewhere – MR’s Highways Ministry where project “expenditure” was blown up by orders of magnitude, Basil R’s ministries, defence, petroleum, and anything Sajin, Namal and such others touched? The reason is that PM and President are giving the public the kokka-pennanawa run-around. Weliamuna and his team are high calibre, but half-a-dozen more could have been put together if the political will existed but Ranil–Sirisena lack the killer instinct. The Rajapaksas had Fonseka in the cooler in a trice, hauled him before a mock-trial and stripped him of all but his underpants with the speed of greased lightening. En passant exposing the army’s top echelon as the abode of some Generals happy to defecate on uniform and epaulette and make themselves a cat’s paw of powerful political personalities. Sirisena argues, quite credibly, that had he lost the elections he would have ended up six-feet under; that’s the Pakse-style killer instinct!
Guangxi and guangxixue
The two words are not to be confused. Guangxi refers to a personalised network of giving and receiving favours; it means more than connections or relationships and carries a cultural flavour long-rooted in history. It is not bribery, abuse of power, or manipulation of authority; for this guangxixue (actually, guangxi studies) has been adopted by some Western scholars. Guangxi refers to favours and services including the face to return a favour if one receives one. It has influence in political and official relationships and in business and was significant even in the austere Mao period due to strong social ties and a collectivist outlook. Foreign leaders are recipients of guangxi as China builds networks, but greedy and adroit blackguards exploit it for guangxixue. In meddling with private project companies there is a lot of space under the proverbial table.
I was chatting to a winsome wench on the banks of the river Li in scenic Guangxi Province (same English spelling as guangxi but different Chinese character) who was amazed that I located the exact spot where the photograph adorning the back of the twenty Yuan note was taken. Money talks and I was quizzed: “If cooperation agreements were signed after consultation and consensus and the Chinese side did nothing wrong, why are you stopping the Colombo Harbour City project? The company is losing $380,000 a day”. It is not easy to explain to foreigners why they should be penalised when the blackguards are on our side. I had to emphasise the likely complicity of the project company in siphoning and laundering project money from Chinese lending agencies to recipient country leader’s overseas bank accounts, and contentious land sovereignty issues. Now however Colombo is silent on guangxixue; government pronouncements raise only environmental and sovereignty concerns.
The perception of corruption is of utmost public concern in the post-Mao era; it harms social stability and economic wellness. Relatives of former prime minister Wen Jiabo stashed millions in foreign banks and relatives of President Xi Jinping accumulated wealth improperly. Foreign reports of these allegations are blocked – we are familiar with the methods. Nonetheless, President Xi’s anti-corruption drive is robust though selective, targeting opponents who were loyalists of previous leaders. It’s fine by me if Ranil-Sirisena bring scoundrels of the old regime to justice, even if they are political rivals. If of ten heavyweights, eight are rogues, go after the worst four first, the other six are needed to keep the ship of state afloat.
Two high profile cases are headline news. Former Politburo Standing Committee member and Head of Security, Zhou Yongkang, will be charged with bribery, abuse of power and disclosing state secrets it was announced on 3 April 2015. Zhou is the highest-ranked Communist Party official ever to be indicted for graft. At his peak he wielded immense power overseeing the courts, police, domestic security and state intelligence. Family members occupied high places and were involved in scandals at the gigantic China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest oil company (state owned).
Bo Xilai, Communist Party chief in Chongqing, a huge municipality, and a Party high-flyer was expelled, prosecuted and imprisoned. His wife was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. A leaked audio recording revealed Bo and his police chief Wang discussing an investigation into Bo’s family and mentioned that he may be linked to the murder. The two fell out; Wang ratted on Bo.
Corruption and economic growth
Was corruption the price of economic growth? They went hand in hand and helped capitalists skirt regulations and an overly centralised bureaucracy. Thriving decentralised provincial and county administrations laid out investment and production plans and promoted infrastructure expansion on a scale that boggles the mind unless one travels across China and sees it. A crucial corollary, corruption too was decentralised. An all round economic explosion, complemented by sleaze of cadres at national and local levels, created a unity of purpose and promoted astonishing growth.
In Lanka however, corruption retards growth, represses and distorts investment and corrodes businesses; all primary determinants of capitalism’s health. Sans orderly progress, good governance and law enforcement, Lanka’s economy will grind to a halt; an incomparably different world from China. There is a kural which goes “Vaana mayl aada athu kanda vaankoli . . .” etc. The turkey seeing the ethereal dance of the peacock imagines it can waltz to the same tune!
But as Yang Hengjun points out in the web journal ‘The Diplomat’ of 18 March 2015, a different problem is now unraveling. Millions of bureaucrats at national and provincial level are backing off in fear; instead of acting-up they are not-acting at all. “For ordinary citizens, an official acting-up is bad, but not-acting is worse. Acting-up is not chaos but following an orderly set of unspoken rules — trading money for power. Give money, get things done; social morals are destroyed but one can still get that business license approved. When officials are not-acting it’s a different matter. They occupy posts, but dare not employ the unspoken rules; they are passive and slow-moving. That business license is not approved and there’s nothing one can do about it! Inaction will have an impact on the economy”.
Hengjun does not take the next step. President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, though unlikely to be derailed by political rivals, faces its greatest challenge from China’s disoriented bureaucracy. When emperors took on the bureaucracy they lost as it was the mandarins who sustained the stability of the state for more than two millennia. Confucius (551-487 BC) crafted a governance ethic that exalted duty, justice, integrity and meritocracy. Lanka, lacking these traditions and having destroyed what it had of an able bureaucracy is far more vulnerable. If it does not root-out high-level corruption now, the rot will become endemic, and life threatening.
Salvaging Sino-Lanka relations
It is unthinkable to let relations with China go down the tubes; China is far too important for our economic development. While tilting back to a balanced stance such as renewing long cherished ties with India and repairing damaged links with the West, we must have the survival sense to sustain friendship with China. The mandarins are no fools, they see that our disarray is of Rajapaksa provenance and understand that the new government must act against manifest sleaze. If the Paksas are locked up or strung up, not a tear will be shed in the Middle Kingdom.
President Xi Jinping inaugurated the Port City project during his September 2014 visit, so suspension is a small personal setback. China is holding it up as a link in its Maritime Silk Road and staunchly defends the project: “We believe Sri Lanka will act in its long-term interests, advance practical cooperation with China, properly handle relevant issues, keep Chinese companies interested in investing in Sri Lanka and protect their lawful rights and interests.” Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao said: “It meets Sri Lanka’s needs and can bring tangible benefits to the people”. Significantly he added “The new government is firmly committed to a friendly policy towards China.”
China is too important a partner – not only in economic development. Lanka cannot turn away from China. Colombo is waffling over the project, it does not want to alienate Beijing, but neither can it back off on key anxieties. The sticking point is ceding land to a foreign power; environmental issues can be fixed. Frankly, in my view, the entire concept of turning Fort into a pseudo-Shanghai artifice of neon lights, high-rises and a fake enclave of finance-capital will neither serve the people of Lanka nor promote robust capitalist development. It’s a harmful policy choice, irrespective of graft, sovereignty and environmental stumbling blocks. But alas the trap has been sprung and we are so ensnared that finding a way out may be impossible.
Nevertheless, Sino-Lanka relations need to move beyond the maladroit Rajapaksa quagmire and the Port City nightmare. This will keep Ranil, Sirisena and the mandarins at Beijing’s Colombo Desk awake at night for a while longer.