Notes from Beijing

Beijing, October 24, 2009

As he sits in a prison cell in North Carolina, Bernie Madoff may not think he has much to be grateful for, aside from the memories he accumulated enjoying his larcenous life of luxury, but for sure he should be thanking whatever lucky star still shines above him that he is not Chinese. Not that his brazen thievery might not have flourished in China, too. There’s a kind of earnestness in the quest for riches here that combines with endemic corruption in a way that would let someone with Madoff’s propensities thrive. The difference comes when they get caught.
Three dairy company executives were sentenced to death earlier this year after milk laced with melamine sold by their companies killed at least six children and sickened hundreds of thousands.
In July, 2007, the former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration was executed for corruption, following an international scandal involving medicines contaminated with dangerous ingredients. He was convicted of taking bribes totaling just under a million bucks—a trifling sum in Madoff’s world.
And in August of this year, Li Pieyang, who ran the Beijing airport authority, was convicted of taking $4 million in bribes and embezzling about $12 million more in public funds over the past 14 years, and summarily executed.
Had Madoff been Chinese, two more fortunate comrades would be off dialysis.

Speaking of corruption, the headline story in the China Daily over the last couple of days has been about a new scam in Shanghai that’s came to light because one of its victims, a 19 year old man named Sun who’d just arrived in the big city from Henan province, made a very public declaration of his innocence. Here’s what Sun fell for:
A man who appears to be injured flags Sun down as he’s driving to Pudong to pick someone up on instructions of his boss at the construction company where he’s just landed a job. Sun, being a good person, stops and offers the guy a ride. Two blocks later the cops pull him over, the passenger tosses a 10 RMB note at Sun and jumps out, miraculously recovered. Sun’s accused of operating an illegal taxi and his car is confiscated. If he’s convicted he’ll have to pay 10,000 RMB –$1,500—to get the car back. This is just under half of the average annual income of an urban worker in China. Rural workers make much less, and Sun has just arrived from the countryside.
He was put in a police van with another man accused of the same “crime,” so naturally they compared notes. Same “passenger” in both instances, it turns out, a man the police refuse to identify. Two weeks later, brooding over his fate, Sun “cuts off his finger to prove his innocence.” There was a picture of a weeping Sun with a huge bandage around his hand on the front page of the China Daily on Thursday.
This story may seem trivial in the face of the world’s more intractable problems, but the fact the the official press is covering it, and that 96% of the 14,000 people who took the time to respond to an internet poll about Sun believe him and not the cops, is a hopeful sign for China’s future. Rooting out corruption is a tremendous challenge in many countries. Our closest neighbor is rife with narco-corruption, and its people pay a huge price.

The Shanghai cops running their illegal taxi con may, too, end up donating organs.

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