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Corruption and revolution

Stories about corruption follow a familiar arc. It is exposed by the press (or bloggers) and condemned, and then others come along who shrug in a worldly way, give a wry smile and explain that this is how business is done.

Not many people have heard of Yang Dacai until August, when he was photographed smirking at the side of the road where 36 people had died in a car crash. That smile made the head of Shaanxi province’s Bureau of Work Safety a hate-figure among Chinese bloggers, who soon started digging into his life.

It didn’t take long to unearth pictures of him wearing various expensive watches, one of which was said to cost over €24,000. In total, he had been pictured wearing over €125,000 of luxury schmutter. Needless to say, it was hard to see how he’d afforded it on his salary.

It’s becoming a common tale in China, where numerous members of the Party have their noses firmly in the trough. The latest to be accused of being on the take was the country’s premier Wen Jiabao, whose family is accused by the New York Times of amassing a fortune of $2.7 billion (€2 billion).

Stories about corruption follow a familiar arc. It is exposed by the press (or bloggers) and condemned, and then others come along who shrug in a worldly way, give a wry smile and explain that this is how business is done. Mutual back-scratching is the way of the world, and only naive idealists think otherwise, they say.

And it isn’t a question of murky deals and shady oligarchs. Even in supposedly transparent countries like the UK and US, friends are given contracts, family members get preferential treatment. It’s human nature, deal with it.

But there’s more to it than that. The word “corruption” has all sorts of connotations for an English speaker – it suggests decay, rottenness and contamination. The word’s original Latin root means “to break absolutely”.

Values are often embedded in language, and the way we speak about businesses implies a set of values. Calling pay-offs “corrupt” suggests a whole worldview, one that values equality of opportunity, and thinks that it is right to reward hard work and talent.

That idea is everywhere in western democracies, politicians take it for granted, as do the business magazines that champion entrepreneurs and salivate over rags-to-riches stories. It’s assumed that social mobility is a good thing. Pay-offs, to that way of thinking, are a Bad Thing and really do deserve a nasty name.

But not everybody champions hard work, talent and social mobility. Socially conservative people who value stability over equality of opportunity might well see a system where money buys you influence as a good one; it means that those who already have wealth and power keep it and there’s less chance of disruptive social change. Pay-offs don’t threaten to break that sort of system, they support it. You might say that they are the system.

Globalisation means that western businesses are working more and more with people who value stability over freedom. That doesn’t mean westerners should abandon their principles when they go to the Middle East or China. But they should realise that their ways of talking or doing business are part and parcel of a worldview that in some places is potentially incendiary. Business culture – even business language – can be revolutionary.

That revolutionary way of thinking is spreading. True, the Chinese government responded to the New York Times’ allegations by blocking the newspaper’s website. But Yang Dacai got the sack.

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