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Mixed results: Fighting corruption with Web activism in China and India

March 27, 2013
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Chinese villagers protesting in Guangzhou.

Chinese villagers protesting outside the Guangdong provincial government complex in Guangzhou. Some officials fear online activism increases protests and social instability. (Photo by William Foreman)

I Paid a Bribe has been a big hit in India. The website allows citizens to report bribe-giving incidents, and the information is used to make policy recommendations to fight petty corruption.

Since the graft-busting site was launched in 2008, it has been replicated in at least 17 other countries, including China, where many spin-off sites were created in different parts of the nation.

But the experience in China was short-lived and much different than in India. After about three months, some Chinese sites were shut down by the government, while the public lost interest in others that were co-opted by officials or morphed into private investigation businesses.

Why did I Paid a Bribe flourish in India and fail in China?

The issue was addressed in a March 26 talk by Yuen Yuen Ang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Ang noted that according to popular opinion, China’s authoritarian government could not possibly tolerate having citizens make online reports about bribery.

But she said this explanation doesn’t tell the whole story because China’s government is not monolithic. It’s a huge entity with different ministries and layers of government that often have conflicting viewpoints. With I Paid a Bribe, some thought the sites were valuable sources of information. But other officials viewed them to be threats that amplified the corruption problem and undermined legitimacy.

A deeper analysis of I Paid a Bribe in China and India yields other significant differences, Ang said. India’s site was managed by a reputable non-government agency, while citizens and online activists launched the sites in China. The goals in the two countries were also different.

Ang explains the significance of these differences in these excerpts of her talk, sponsored by U-M’s Center for Chinese Studies and the International Institute:

“What’s missing in China is not just the freedom of speech. What’s missing in China is also the absence of professionally managed NGOs to channel citizens’ input into constructive policy engagement and public education. You see that in India, but this is critically missing in China.

“The other thing missing in China is that Chinese citizens as well as online social activists tend to have a narrow view of anti-corruption as exposing and arresting bad people rather than changing procedures, changing the way government works.

“India’s I Paid a Bribe has a very explicit goal. It says our intent is to change the system that breeds corruption, rather than indict individuals within the system.

“If you change the individuals, the threat of corruption remains. But if you change the system, you root out corruption permanently. If you go to India’s I Paid a Bribe, you see no mention of this person is bad. There is no mention of any individual. It’s very much focused on: What’s wrong with our system? What are the concrete and practical things we can do to fight corruption?” 

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