IN THE spring of 1997 in a small hotel in a small town in the middle of Sichuan province, I met Mr Zhao. He had a battered suitcase, tattered clothes and a desperate expression. Early on in our conversation, he asked me if I knew any officials who could help him land some road-building contracts.
By Murong Xuecun
Mr Zhao must have been very desperate because I had just graduated from university and was working as a junior legal consultant for a state-owned company, and knew nothing about road-building contracts.
In today's China, business deals are hardly ever carried out fairly. Mostly it's a matter of who you know, or who you pay off, and then the proceeds are divided up and down the chain of corruption.
Mr Zhao was the lowliest link in the chain - the person who actually did some work. He claimed to be able to take on any kind of construction job. The price he was willing to pay for kickbacks was irrelevant because in his quest to make money, the more he had to kick back, the less he'd pay for materials. It was simple maths.
To try to get me interested, Mr Zhao offered me 100,000 yuan (almost S$20,000) per kilometre of road built if I could help him land a contract. I initially thought he was a con man but soon realised that this offer was entirely normal and in accordance with the Rules of China game. Mr Zhao was not a con man, he was simply an ambitious small-time operator lacking the right connections. Like most Chinese people, he was harmed by corruption yet he dearly wanted in.
I will never forget something Mr Zhao said to me: There's not a single straight road in China; they were all built with kickbacks.
No one stays clean when travelling along these sparkling, yet tainted roads. Corruption is the norm, it has become the unwritten law, an article of faith. It is everywhere. You don't have to engage corruption, corruption engages you. It follows you, no matter where you go. No one can stay clean.
Journalists take 'travel expenses' for writing articles. Professors ask for a 'consulting fee' to go to doctoral seminars. Doctors expect red packets of cash for performing operations. Even donations to charities and temples are subject to corruption.
Good luck to the person who tries to stay clean.
In the autumn of 1997, one of my co-workers absconded with company funds. My supervisor and I were asked to accompany two police officers to another province to investigate. As is common practice, my company was expected to cover all the police officers' expenses.
One evening after dinner, an officer suggested we go to a nightclub to have some fun - a polite euphemism for hiring prostitutes. My supervisor was a bit too slow to acquiesce and the policeman was furious. He spent the next hour cursing my boss. 'You ungrateful idiot!' he shouted. 'Am I asking too much? Did I ask for money?' We were speechless. But deep down, I felt for the police officer's grievance and I think most Chinese people would feel the same way.
In China, there is a commonly accepted protocol when dealing with the police: If the police agree to help you, it is your job to meet all their demands. It is not considered corruption for an officer to 'charge extra money to do his job' - it is normal practice. And that night, our officer was being more than fair - he did not even ask for money. He merely wanted to 'have some fun'. He had every right to be upset, I remember thinking.
If corruption is inevitable, then people inevitably force themselves to get used to it, and even defend its legitimacy. Most of us Chinese go from being shocked to being numb.
In 2001, I was working for a different company in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. The day before Chinese New Year, two officers from the local Bureau of Industrial and Commercial Administration turned up. Their visit was to offer 'thanks' for our 'support of their work'. They wanted 'to listen to our suggestions'. My boss knew the rules of the game well. She told me to prepare two envelopes. One contained 2,000 yuan, for the section chief, the other 1,000 yuan, for his assistant. We had tea together and talked about work. Everyone was happy. My boss later told me that she had done this many times. She did not see the 3,000 yuan as a bribe. It was merely a 'friendly gesture'.
These are trivial examples from the recent past that do not represent a full picture of corruption in China. Soon I came to hear about and witness far more serious and disturbing things: a village chief embezzling several hundred million yuan; a provincial governor embezzling several billion yuan; a woman able to become a high official by selling her body; an attorney presenting a virgin to a judge...
At a time when I was naive, I thought that the officials at the highest levels of government genuinely opposed corruption and that it was those on the lower levels who were not necessarily clean. Later, when I saw for myself the ever-increasing assets of corrupt officials, when I saw that every level of government resists the reporting of assets of civil servants, and when I saw that the mass media has become more and more constrained in its reporting on corruption cases, I came to realise that no one in China's bureaucracy genuinely opposes corruption.
In the summer of 2009, in the middle of a well-publicised anti-mafia campaign spearheaded by Mr Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former head of Chongqing's Communist Party caught up in a murder and corruption scandal, the Chongqing Public Security Bureau invited me to the city to write another book on corruption in the legal profession, like my novel Dancing Through Red Dust, which they considered 'incisive'. The idea, I assumed, was that a new book by me would stress the significance of the anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing, and the local government's determination to combat corruption.
I turned them down. By then, I had learnt that you can't fix corruption without fixing our noxious system, which lacks a robust legal and judicial regime. Until China has a new system based on the rule of law, any anti-corruption campaign would be simply for show. And, of course, anti-corruption campaigns are often themselves corrupt.
The leadership in Beijing needs corruption and actually encourages it. Corruption is the system's natural lubricant, without which everything would grind to a halt. There's no shortage of upright people in China, but in this system even the upright must study the crooked arts simply to survive.
Not a single person in China can completely break free from corruption, and not a single road is straight.
Murong Xuecun, the pen name of Hao Qun, is one of China's early Internet writers, best known for the novels, Leave Me Alone, A Novel Of Chengdu and Dancing Through Red Dust. This article was translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.