A cure for cancer of corruption will take more than an iron fist
Graft is a daily part of life on the mainland and jailing a few corrupt officials will do nothing to rid the system of the pervasive disease
New Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping has been vocal about corruption. In his first Politburo meeting as chief, he said: "Corruption is getting worse. The party will perish, so will our country … We should fight it with an iron fist."
Within 24 hours, state media splashed with news of the arrest of a dozen or so corrupt officials in various provinces.
How seriously should we take this? By way of an answer, here is the story of "George". Say "ding" whenever you see, smell or sense corruption.
George is not an insider privy to the anti-graft campaign and power struggles on the mainland. He's just a golf-loving businessman in his 40s with cross-border car plates that he uses to drive from his Hong Kong home to a golf course in Guangdong.
Mainland authorities have limited the number of cross-border plates to 27,000, less than 10 per cent of the number of vehicles in Hong Kong.
Only three kinds of people qualify for one. First, legislators of Guangdong, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Second, people who invest at least US$1 million in a local business that pays 300,000 yuan (HK$370,000) or more in tax a year. Third, people who donate no less than 10 million yuan to a local charity.
The official queue is long. One of George's law-abiding friends hasn't heard about his application for a year.
A way around this is to hire an agent. He or she will find you a shell company with false investment and tax claims; apply for the licence and arrange an annual "tax audit" for your company. The service costs HK$400,000 to HK$900,000, depending on the popularity of the customs checkpoint you want to use. If you are lucky enough to find a "genuine" agent, you'll get your licence within months.
George is more than lucky. His golf partner has a business that is big and influential enough to get a handful of those precious car plates. So George's Mercedes-Benz became one of the business' "factory" cars overnight.
But that was just the start. George's brand new car had to have a safety check and its vehicle number scanned to make sure it wasn't stolen. Sounds fair? Only certain places are certified to carry out these jobs and they are miles apart.
While settling the HK$1,000 bill for the safety check, George was told that he'd better get the insurance while he was there, too. "We are not sure if other counters can be that quick," she said, motioning to a desk by the door. He handed over HK$10,000 for the insurance.
George also had to have his own safety check. The government authorises only one hospital to do medical assessments for drivers, and there, for 500 yuan, George had his eyes, heart, blood, lungs, stomach and teeth checked - all in less than 20 minutes. What do one's teeth and stomach have to do with driving? Who knows but a nurse was quick to say: "There are some problems with your teeth. We can fix them at a discount."
After days of driving from centre to centre, and with the help of his friend's efficient secretary to sort out the paperwork, George finally got hold of the plates. But he couldn't just screw them onto the car - a designated car outlet did the job for him.
The whole process is a pain but the twice-weekly games of golf are fun.
Alas, George ran out of customs declaration slips within four months and he couldn't get more from the customs office. Instead, he had to drive 20 minutes to the only government vehicle management centre in the province to make a payment and then drive back to get the new slips.
The centre was swamped with people offering to help him - for a 20-yuan fee. George wished he'd accepted the help. He ended up spending half an hour working out which windows to go to and which forms to fill, and battling queue-jumpers. Now he pays an "agent" up to 2,000 yuan a year to do it for him. All he has to do is to drop his old papers off at a service point at customs and collect the new ones 15 minutes later.
And, once a year, George pays the agent 2,200 yuan to have the health check instead of him. His wife is a doctor and very concerned about the high doses of radiation from X-ray machines across the border.
You must be tired of dinging by now. It's even more tiring trying to list the people who probably took bribes.
Yet, George's case is not special. All the illegal services mentioned here can be easily found on the internet, thanks to a well-established syndicate that doesn't bother to hide. Yet, this is just a tiny part of the country's under-the-table ecosystem.
Corruption is no longer a tumour that can be cut out. It has become part of the system, thanks to a political structure with no checks and balances and a love of over-regulation.
As Xi is busy proving himself a leader, we will see more corrupt officials go to jail. But that will mean nothing more than a new boss for some old syndicates.