Every so often you read a news article so revealing that it triggers this thought: I wonder if we'll look back on that story in five years and say, "We should have seen this coming. That story was the warning sign."
For me that article was a July 25 piece in the Washington Post about how jilted mistresses of corrupt Chinese government officials have become the country's most important whistle-blowers — turning to the Internet to expose the antics of senior bureaucrats. The Post detailed the case of a 26-year-old named Ji Yingnan, who had been engaged to wed Fan Yue — a deputy director at the State Administration of Archives — until she discovered that he had been married with a son the entire time they were together.
To get her revenge, Ji "has released hundreds of photos online that offer a rare window into the life of a Chinese central government official who — despite his modest salary — was apparently able to lavish his mistress" with no end of luxury items, The Post reported. The first time "they went shopping, Ji said, the couple went to Prada and paid $10,000 for a skirt, a purse and a scarf. A month after they met, Fan rented an apartment for them that cost $1,500 a month and spent more than $16,000 on bedsheets, home appliances, an Apple desktop and a laptop, according to Ji. Then he bought her a silver Audi A5, priced in the United States at about $40,000, she said. ... 'He put cash into my purse every day,' said Ji in a letter to the Communist Party complaining about Fan's behavior."
It gets better. The Post reported that "a well-known Chinese blogger who has posted Ji's photos and videos on his website said he spoke with Fan last month. Fan told the blogger that he didn't spend as much money as Ji claims, saying it was less than $1.7 million but more than $500,000. 'This woman is not good. She is too greedy,' the blogger, Zhu Ruifeng, said Fan told him."
Oh, I see. It was less than $1.7 million. That's good to know! This guy is a senior bureaucrat in the state archives. What sort of illicit activity was he up to in the file rooms to earn that kind of cash? Every government has corruption, including ours. But China's is industrial strength. My colleague David Barbosa last year exposed how then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's mother, son, daughter, younger brother, wife and brother-in-law had collectively amassed $2.7 billion in assets. But when you see how much money a deputy archives director was able to amass — and how brazenly he spent it — you start to wonder and worry.
When I visited China in September, I wrote that I heard a new meme from Chinese businesspeople whom I met: "Make your money and get out." More than ever, I heard a lack of confidence in the Chinese economic model. We should hope that China can make a stable transition from one-party Communism to a more consensual, multiparty system — and a stable diversification of its low-wage, high-export, state-led command economy — the way South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore have done. Its huge savings will help.
The world can ill afford a chaotic transition in China. With the United States stuck in slow growth, Europe mired in stagnation and the Arab world imploding, China has been a vital economic engine for the global economy. If China's sagging growth and employment rates meet rising discontent with corruption by officials — trying to get their own while the getting is still good — we will not have a stable transition in China. And if one-sixth of humanity starts going through an unstable and uncertain political/economic transition, it will shake the world.
It would be great if Chinese reporters, bloggers, citizens groups and, yes, Internet-empowered mistresses could expose corruption in ways that help make that transition both necessary and possible. But these virtuous civil society actors will only succeed if they find allies in the Communist Party, if they can empower those party cadres who understand the risk to stability, and to their party's future, posed by runaway corruption.
The Ji and Fan story is very entertaining. But if it is just the tip of an iceberg of corruption that destabilizes China, it won't be a laughing matter. How Chinese officials behave or misbehave not only will affect us — from the value of our currency to the level of our interest rates to the quality of the air we breathe — it might be the biggest thing that affects us outside of our own government.
There is reason for worry.