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Corruption is usually considered a bad thing, but in China, the official view is becoming more murky. For decades, the communist party said corruption threatened its survival, but recently, a state-run paper argued corruption couldn't be stamped out, so it should be contained at acceptable levels.
From Beijing, NPR's Louisa Lim explains.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It's called the hall of fame, but actually, it's a wall of shame. Dozens of pink-tinted portraits hang in neat lines, beaming men in ties and glasses, the very picture of the archetypal communist apparatchik. Their portraits are painted rosy pink, the color of money, or at least China's 100 yuan bill. Each is a real life Chinese official found guilty of corruption.
ZHANG BINGJIAN: (Unintelligible) from Shanghai here.
LIM: And he got 18 years in prison?
BINGJIAN: This is another guy from (unintelligible)...
LIM: This gallery of rogues is the brainchild of artist and filmmaker, Zhang Bingjian. So far, he's commissioned 1,600 portraits of corrupt Chinese officials. As is fitting for the workshop of the world, he employs other artists to paint them cheaply, some better than others.
Paradoxically, the cumulative effect of tier upon tier of faces is a sort of faceless assembly line of corruption. Artist Zhang says corruption permeates every aspect of life in China.
BINGJIAN: If you want to do business here, if you want to find a good school for your kids, you have to corrupt somebody. I mean, if you want to find a good hospital for your mother, you have to give money to somebody under the table. In China, we call it (foreign language spoken). It's like a hidden rule.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Got the first verdict in China's football corruption scandal that...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: China's ruling communist party has expelled a former railway minister.
LIM: The Chinese public hears headlines about fighting corruption every day, but in fact, official figures show fewer corruption investigations than a decade ago. In 2010, the number of people investigated for misappropriation of public funds was a third the number 10 years before.
An official report posted online last year, then quickly deleted, estimated $120 billion has been stashed overseas since the mid-'90s. Analysts say the corruption has become collective and collusive in nature.
MINXIN PEI: It's corruption of the worst kind. In academic jargon, we call this looting.
LIM: Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. He estimates the cost of corruption in China, conservatively speaking, to be about three percent of GDP.
PEI: China is a $7 trillion economy. That's $201 billion of wealth stolen each year. As long as the economy keeps growing, it may be able to finance the cost of corruption. The real challenge is when the economy slows down or is not doing as well, then corruption becomes a real drain on society.
LIM: There are signs the economy is slowing now, but the state-run media appears to be sending mixed messages on corruption. An editorial in the Global Times argued stamping out corruption would send the whole country into pain and confusion. A People's Daily piece labeled it extremist to criticize China just because of corruption. Pei has his own theory why.
PEI: Now, the party probably thinks that corruption is less of a threat than losing legitimacy by exposing how corrupt this government is. In other words, it has to choose a lesser evil.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
LIM: China touts a harmonious society, but growing online anger at corruption is souring that harmony. However, among retirees having their daily sing-song in a Beijing park, there's surprising tolerance towards corruption, which is seen as a fact of life.
XU YONGHUA: (Foreign language spoken).
LIM: No matter which dynasty, these problems have always happened, says singer Xu Yonghua. You have to look at this fairly, not judging it with hate.
According to Pei, official statistics show only three percent of officials investigated are handed over to the judicial authorities, so only a tiny minority are punished. And, while there is discussion about corruption, artist Zhang can't find anywhere to show his work.
BINGJIAN: I tried to contact some gallery, museums, but I had no response. People get scared. Even me, you know, it's understandable. Probably the timing is not right to show this piece. Fortunately, now we got Internet, so people will start to know that.
LIM: But he's already been ordered to take his pictures down from his blog. Despite this, Zhang says, his wall of fame shouldn't be seen as an indictment of China. The fact these cases are made public, he believes, makes this a work not of desperation but of hope.
BINGJIAN: Before, we were cheated without know. Now, we know we are cheated. This is the progress we made.
LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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