Creatively Corrupt: How Abuse Of Power In China Spreads -- And Innovates

Analysis: A new "blue book" on the deepening problem of corruption delves into the unusual ability for the unethical to find new techniques for abusing their power. The cure must be more just as deep as the illness.

(Jason A. Howie)
(Jason A. Howie)

BEIJING - Corruption in China is "spreading from individuals to groups, from personal illegal gains to shared community interests…" Such reads the summary of the Anti-Corruption Blue Book, recently published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Needless to say, as public outrage at abuse of power swells, the Chinese public will delve into this eagerly awaited new document.

According to the report, the corrupt in China show a knack for constantly updating their illicit and unethical techniques; and not only are corrupt officials indulging in their consumptive pleasures, but are also ever busy pursuing more and more wealth.

China's corruption is also noteworthy for touching virtually all corners of society, from the economic, political and judicial fields to the social, cultural and educational ones. The emergence of "cross-border" (export-oriented) corruption is another trend.

In a country not exactly famous for innovation, this strong creative ability in the pursuit of corruption throws a particularly shameful and absurd light on contemporary China.

The professional report's findings confirm widespread public opinion about corruption in China. In recent years, corruption-related stories have been regularly at the top of the national news agenda, whether in the traditional press or across new media. There's never a lack of material for corruption coverage, nor any worry about public fatigue on the subject.

The non-stop shocking facts and the new records high marks for money stolen manage to always attract new attention – and outrage. Among the most stunning examples is Zhang Shuguang, the former deputy-chief engineer of the Railways Ministry. He managed to obtain a staggering amount of some 2 billion RMB ($317 million) in bribes and other abuses of power, swiftly deposited in the banks of America and Switzerland.

Little cure, Big cure

So what should be done to curb corruption? The Anti-Corruption Blue Book says some key solutions involve using technology as an important means of fighting corruption: the implementation of open online e-government services, the establishment of electronic monitoring systems based on administrative examination and approval, and the interaction between the public and the government via the Internet.

As the Blue Book points out, the lack of effective supervision and control are the chief causes of China's corruption phenomena. The use of technology provides an opportunity to improve the configuration of power, the regulation of power, as well as the prevention of the abuse of power.

As China's top social science research institution and think tank, the Academy's focus on science and technology offers important new ideas. Still, reading the report gives one the feeling that its authors are avoiding the most important point.

Corruption goes hand in hand with human society, and yet it is not an incurable illness. Very much to the contrary, human society has found very effective means of curbing corruption: a transparent system of tracking officials' property; public opinion; a truly independent judicial and auditing system; and of course, the government's willingness and ability for self-purification also plays an important role.

Though under ever-renewed guises, the causes of the current flux of corruption in China are nonetheless much the same - the lack of effective supervision and restriction of public power.

Unfortunately, even though we already understand all the notions of modern political civilization, authority can always be hijacked by vested interest groups.

The disease itself knows best what drug is most effective. China's rulers have issued countless documents, highlighted more and more moral examples to combat corruption -- but they have all failed. Simply calling on officials to exercise self-discipline and self-examination is like urging one's own right hand to supervise the left hand. Ultimately, it simply won't happen.

Let us recall what Zeng Jinchun, the corrupt secretary of the Chenzhou Commission for Discipline Inspection, said as a mantra before his execution. When asked by the press what would be the most effective method of preventing corruption, Zeng answered: "the power of public opinion." Though he was corrupt, Zeng's death gives us a lesson that should not to be forgotten.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Jason A. Howie

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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