Tigers and Flies

Today is the fourth day of the fourth month. In the Middle Kingdom 4/4 would be considered highly inauspicious. The number four sounds like the word for death, , pronounced tze, and the Chinese are wonderfully superstitious.

They also like emphasis, so pairs reinforce a concept, for better or worse. It’s been a few years since I was out there, and everyone tells me things have changed. You wouldn’t get a pack of cigarettes on your side plate now, where the bread usually sits, but you did in the nineties—my gift was red, and it was called Double Happiness—presumably one for each lung.

In the West there’s little symbolism in numbers, and in general a certain dislike of numbers, as if they were a necessary evil rather than a foundation of society. Kids learn to dislike arithmetic at school, and that notion is presumably reinforced at home by parents with similar views.

For most people, good things are qualitative, and bad tend to be quantitative: fines, bills, taxes, blood pressure. Not so in China where a phone number consisting entirely of eights was sold to Sichuan Airlines in 2003 for two hundred-eighty thousand dollars.

Eight is particularly auspicious, to the extent that a number of airline routes to the Far East sport eights: UA888, BA88, EY888, KL888, CX888—a little obsessive? Perhaps, but good for maimai: the two characters—a pair—with different tones, mean buy-sell, i.e. business.

Perhaps the greatest change since my regular forays to the Middle Kingdom is the current drive against corruption. President Xi Jinping kicked off the game with a speech where he spoke of ‘striking tigers and flies at the same time.

Along with the Double Happiness cigarette packs, irresistible appetizers often appeared at Chinese banquets.

Along with Double Happiness cigarette packs, irresistible appetizers often surfaced at Chinese banquets.

In a very Chinese way, President Xi informed the nation that the fight against corruption was on. The nation grasped the tigers and flies concept immediately—everyone and anyone was a target.

The banqueting industry was one of the first hit, and severely, because sumptuous dining is an integral part of Chinese maimai, as are expensive gifts, including maotai, the staple liquor at state banquets.

In 2014, Prada saw a twenty-four percent year-to-year decline in first quarter sales—in a country where annual economic growth was a paltry seven percent. Luxury goods are taking a dive.

Last September, the Communist Party boss of a city in Eastern China was delivering an anti-corruption speech when a group of men from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) appeared. When he finished, they spirited him away—Municipal Party Secretary Li Qiang hasn’t been seen publicly since.

Li is one of seventy-five thousand party members being investigated by the dreaded CCDI. If we scale that to the United States or Europe, we’d be talking ten to fifteen thousand politicians, bankers, and CEOs under investigation.

But these numbers are mostly flyweights, not the tiger division. The very top end looks much more like a witch hunt, particularly with the recent charges brought against Zhou Yongkang.

When King John II of Portugal came to the throne in 1481, he did exactly the same—the Perfect Prince had over eighty people killed to consolidate his power, mostly from the House of Braganza.

From Bo Xilai to Zhou, powerful men who might present a challenge to Xi’s power are being removed. It seems practically inconceivable that any figure at the top of the Chinese political ladder is untouched by the system—and the system was built on patronage, so it’s open season.

Zhou was particularly powerful, the man in charge of the Chinese internal security system, including the police, intelligence services, and courts.

The BBC explains his arrest in simple terms.

He will eventually be found guilty, of course. But we should hesitate before swallowing too readily the claim by the Chinese authorities that the downfall of so senior a figure proves the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign.

The real question to ask is this: given that so many other senior Communist Party figures, past and present, have used their positions to enrich themselves and their families, why him?

The answer must surely be that there is no good reason, other than a political one.

So the party has embarked on a tiger hunt—the aim there is certainly not to combat corruption, but to reinforce the status quo.

When it comes to corruption itself, a topic that is prevalent in discussions throughout the world, there are tigers and flies everywhere. Corruption was voted ‘word of the year’ in Portugal in 2014, and here too, all scandals that emerged drew the well-known triangle of power-money-corruption.

As for the flies, they are everywhere, because the huge tax burden imposed on citizens of Southern Europe has created a cash economy. So in this part of the world also, almost everyone who complains about corruption does it in an abstract way—the awareness that an unreceipted purchase is a form of mutual personal gain doesn’t enter people’s minds.

But China operates in a special way, otherwise how could the communist political system be a catalyst for personal wealth and aggrandisement? Not just in the twenty-first century, but right back to Deng Xiaoping.

Xiaoping means ‘little peace’, but because of the multiple Chinese homophones it also means ‘little bottle’, to the great amusement of citizens. In the nineteen-eighties Deng lifted the moral load by advising his people that ‘to get rich is glorious.’

In an article published last week, Yukon Huang (sounds like a Chinese gold prospector) puts forward some interesting questions. Firstly, whether corruption in China hindered or promoted rapid growth in recent years.

Two other points are discussed: in most countries development reduces corruption, as it does excessive drinking—in China this is true for maotai, but obviously not the case for corruption. It is in fact the rampant increase in patronage that led to Xi’s anti-corruption drive—the establishment at the top of the party felt grass-roots discontent, in a shrinking economy, might have dire consequences.

The final point is that corruption leads to political instability, and therefore increased corruption could lead to political liberalization.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the scale of bureaucracy in China would severely hamper growth, just as it does in Southern Europe. It is equally obvious that the checks and balances required to maintain the current Chinese political system lead to a top-heavy administration.

They also demand secretiveness. Both of these are enemies of progress.

Those three points are worth a little thought, and the discussions erupting from Huang’s article are violent in the extreme.

Let not the tiger awake.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


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