You hear a lot about Chinese corruption but rarely anything that puts it into a proper context. Fans of Lincoln will note that the rapidly industrializing United States of the 19th century was also pretty corrupt. And in a new paper, George Mason’s Carlos Ramirez argues that the comparison is a good one in terms of per capita income and that it paints a relatively bright picture of Chinese governance:
This paper compares corruption in China over the past 15 years with corruption in the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, periods that are roughly comparable in terms of real income per capita. Corruption indicators for both countries and both periods are constructed by tracking corruption news in prominent U.S. newspapers. Several robustness checks confirm the reliability of the constructed corruption indices for both countries. The comparison indicates that corruption in the U.S. in the early 1870s — when it’s real income per capita was about $2,800 (in 2005 dollars) — was 7 to 9 times higher than China’s corruption level in 1996, the corresponding year in terms of income per capita. By the time the U.S. reached $7,500 in 1928 — approximately equivalent to China’s real income per capita in 2009 — corruption was similar in both countries. The findings imply that, while corruption in China is an issue that merits attention, it is not at alarmingly high levels, compared to the U.S. historical experience. The paper further argues that the corruption and development experiences of both the U.S. and China appear to be consistent with the “life-cycle” theory of corruption — rising at the early stages of development, and declining after modernization has taken place. Hence, as China continues its development process, corruption will likely decline.
I’d file that conclusion under “speculative.” Perhaps Chinese governance won’t improve, economic growth will come to a halt, and there’ll be a new round of profound political dislocations. But this is certainly suggestive information, and the implication is that corruption isn’t necessarily a barrier to further Chinese economic and political development.