Zhu Yuan

Being knowledgeable ≠ being clean

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-09 07:09

What do corrupt officials do when they end up behind bars? Maybe write books if the conditions are right. Quite a number of them have had their books published even while serving their terms.

Zhang Erjiang, former Party secretary of the city of Tianmen in Hubei province, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail for embezzling public money and accepting bribes in 2002, has had four books published since then. Zhou Jiugeng, a former bureau chief who was notorious for smoking cigarettes of a prohibitively expensive brand and was sentenced to 11 years, is reported to be progressing well with his novel in jail.

Apart from one former official who has written a book about how high the cost is for being corrupt, none has written anything to suggest they repent of the crimes they committed in their positions. The four books by Zhang Erjiang are about ancient Chinese literature; some have written novels and others on a subject they are familiar with.

The message is that almost all of them are well-educated. This reminds me of the connection between knowledge and power: In the late 1970s, Francis Bacon's quote "knowledge is power" was very popular when national college entrance examinations were restarted after being suspended for a decade. And placing well-educated people in top positions was a priority and it was taken for granted at the time that power in the hands of knowledgeable people would be used to better the interests of the people and the country.

There is nothing wrong with the hypothesis. But knowledge can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the use of power. We have numerous lessons from ancient dynasties, when officials were selected through imperial examinations. There were hardly any court or local officials who were not familiar with classics such as The Analects by Confucius. Yet, corrupt officials were everywhere in every ancient dynasty. Some of the notoriously corrupt officials in history were at the same time well-known calligraphers.

Bacon is right that knowledge is power. But such power can be abused. If that is the case, an illiterate person with enough common sense might cause much less damage to the interests of the public than a well-educated person in the same official position.

Of course, I do not mean that we should place barely literate people in public positions. But it would be disastrous to only over-emphasize the level of education a person has without giving enough consideration to his or her moral character while recruiting officials. Even if knowledgeable people of integrity are placed in public positions, they may turn out to be corrupt if they are not under effective supervision.

That only one of the corrupt officials who have written books behind bars has ever repented of the crimes he has committed by writing a book sends a dangerous message: Very few of them harbor a guilty conscience, or at least, give that impression. Maybe they believe that they were caught simply because they were unlucky. Maybe they know that many more "lucky" ones are still grabbing as much money as they can by abusing their power. So why should they repent of what they have done?

Most of them spend their own money having their books published. This suggests that they do find it an opportunity to convince the public of their capability. By doing so, they are also paving the way for new careers after being released from prison. Xu Enxing, who used to be Party secretary of Henan Financial College and was sentenced to six years for accepting bribes in 2004, has published four books on finance and economics. And it is reported that he has already been invited to work for securities companies after being released.

For one thing, receiving a good education and being knowledgeable has little to do with being an honest and upright official. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether an official is corrupt or not depends on how much opportunity there is for him or her to do so. So, how knowledgeable an official is should not be a criterion linked to the quality of governance.

E-mail: zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 12/09/2009 page8)