Ask any experienced driver in Beijing about the ways to save parking fees, which have gone up several times in the past few years, and he or she will teach you how to negotiate the rates with parking fee collectors, giving an insight into one of the crude
Every day, in the roadside parking lots in my downtown neighbourhood, drivers haggle with fee collectors despite official rates being displayed on the notice boards overhead. Most times they strike a win-win deal, as drivers pay less by forfeiting receipts, which allows the collectors to pocket the money.
The city’s parking sector usually employs migrant workers, including many from rural areas, because urban residents shun the low-paying, menial and stressful job.
Higher up in the chain of corruption that cashes in on the Chinese passion for owning a set of wheels are people with connections who help drivers cheat the system by providing services such as fixing penalty points or obtaining a coveted licence plate without participating in a public lottery, which, like higher parking fees, has been instituted to curb traffic jams and pollution.
Unfortunately, such petty acts of corruption by people lower down the graft chain, better known as “flies” in the Chinese anti-corruption jargon, are not limited to vehicles and parking. Schools, hospitals, government offices and even private sector outlets are riddled with abuse of power by low-to middle-level staff, which has thrived wherever there is a lack of or inadequate monitoring.
Such acts also hurt the cause of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign for clean government. Despite high-profile crackdowns that have so far brought down quite a few “tigers”, or high-ranking officials embroiled in bribery or embezzlement involving large sums of money, the Chinese media have reported a generally nonchalant response from ordinary people because it is the many “flies” that they have to deal with every day and most of which remain unscathed.
The sentiment is best summarised by a widely circulated joke, which says that, “while big tigers are too far away from us, flies are flying into our faces day after day”.
Political observers have noted that the fall of a corrupt vice-governor or minister may often become a topic of discussion at dinner tables, but powerful messages will be relayed only when “flies” are also swatted with them.
But the fact is that while it takes tremendous political will on the part of the government to ensnare the “tigers”, the campaign to swat the “flies” can also be a tough mission because of their pervasiveness.
Although incessant ideological indoctrination and self-reflection have long been an important anti-corruption strategy in China, empirical experience shows that the education approach has had limited effect, because greed and self-centeredness, when uncurbed, can push both the big and small guys off the cliff.
Higher pay and better welfare may motivate the “flies” to keep away from corruption, because that would enable them to survive without having to seek money through illegal means. Besides, a more liberalised economy and less government control should help reduce the opportunities for corruption.
But the strongest cure remains in nurturing a public opinion that condemns the corrupt “flies” as well as “tigers”, instead of accepting corruption as a way of life that encourages people to become willing or unwilling partners.