Progressive ideas

by Kenneth Chern

China’s new leaders are aware of the danger that corruption poses to the nation’s social stability and economic development.

But entrenched corruption at the local and national levels, including among the families and friends of those very leaders, will make it difficult for them to break the link between money and power that frustrates the masses but sustains the power of a Communist Party that long ago abandoned political belief for economic gain.

A 2007 report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Minxin Pei called the level of Chinese corruption “astonishing,” noting that it cost $US86 billion a year, more than China’s annual education budget. Things have not gotten any better. The Bo Xilai affair – Bo’s wiretapping of other top Chinese leaders, his son’s privileged lifestyle abroad, and his wife’s murder conviction — was but the most lurid case of rampant corruption that has shaken the trust of the Chinese people in their government.

Other high-profile cases have left the public seething: the melamine-laced milk that poisoned hundreds of infants; the Wenchuan earthquake that toppled “tofu schoolhouses” onto pupils while government buildings stood firm; the bullet train crash in Wenzhou that disgraced railway czar Liu Zhijun; and the sale by Wukan officials of prized farmland to real estate developers that triggered villager demonstrations and violence.

In his speech to the 18th Party Congress last week, outgoing President Hu Jintao stressed the need to fight corruption, warning that if the issue is not addressed, “it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” Significantly, he warned leading officials to “strengthen education and discipline over their family and staff.” Along the same lines, incoming Party general secretary Xi Jinping in 2004 instructed, “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.”

But Chinese leaders have made similar warnings for years without making serious headway. That’s because of what Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution terms the “marriage of wealth and political power” which supports an economic strategy based on rewards to local officials for “producing rapid GDP growth while keeping a lid on social unrest.” Put another way, the breakneck speed of Chinese economic development provides wealth that is distributed as patronage and provides support for the Party’s continued political monopoly. And campaigns against corruption evoke the Chinese proverb, “Loud thunder, little rain.”

More specifically, Minxin Pei cites two characteristics of corruption — the corruption of local state institutions through the purchase and sale of government appointments, and “collusion among local ruling elites” or “groups of local officials who cooperate and protect each other.” These practices drain the economy and feed public cynicism but they nurture the political and economic ambitions of entrepreneurs and government officials who thrive in a poorly defined regulatory and policy environment.

This is the social context in which Chinese leaders and their families operate, which is why the calls of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for discipline of families and staff is so interesting. Politicians, their relatives, staff, and friends use their political clout to build businesses and line their pockets. The average wealth of the richest 70 members of the National People’s Congress in 2011 was over US$1 billion. China’s central bank reportedly has evidence that up to 18,000 officials and employees of state-owned firms have fled China since the mid-1990s, taking $127 billion with them.

And recent reports have shown how relatives of top Chinese officials have grown wealthy. Xi himself reportedly has sisters and brothers-in-law with “huge interests in China’s real estate, minerals and telecommunications sectors.” And the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, perhaps the strongest reform advocate of all China’s top leaders, has been reported by the New York Times to have US$2.7 billion in wealth.

The reality is that Chinese leaders, even those who call for (and may sincerely believe in) reform and a crackdown on corruption, find themselves in a social web of political influence and enrichment that sustains the status quo. That reality will make it just as hard for the new leaders as it was for their predecessors to make a serious tilt at corruption.

Corruption and influence peddling are as old as the Chinese nation, and as old as human history. What is new is the demand of poor farmers, workers, and China’s growing middle class for a level playing field and a fairer chance for opportunity. Growing social tensions and environmental stresses make the current system unsustainable for the long term.

How Ji Xinping and the new Politburo meet that test will determine history’s verdict on whether they are authentic leaders with the courage to take the needed steps for the common good of the Chinese people and the welfare of the Chinese nation.

Kenneth Chern is Professor of Asian Policy at the Swinburne University of Technology and Executive Director of the Swinburne Leadership Institute.

This article was first published at


by Nicholas Hookway

We’re in a state of moral decline in the West – or so we’re told. From sky-rocketing divorce rates and the shrinking of life-long commitments to an excessive concern with self and consumerism.

Morality has been diagnosed and it’s terminal.

But does that mean as a nation Australians are less kind or compassionate than we used to be? What’s at the cause of this moral decline? Or does it even exist?

New research suggests that there’s reason enough to question the conventional wisdom around moral decline.

Shaky premise

In an Australian survey, my colleagues – Daphne Habibis and Anthea Vreugdenhil – and I asked nearly 2,000 respondents how kind they see themselves and others.

We found that 95% of respondents believe that it is quite or very important to be kind to one another; 97% agreed that they see themselves as a kind person; 90% reported performing a kind act at least once a week and 82% say most Australians are quite or very kind.

51% said they were kind because “it’s who I am” while only 12% of respondents said it was because they like to be seen as kind, it may benefit them or that they are required to be kind.

These findings suggest that perhaps the extent and nature of moral decline is not what we thought it was.

Two schools of thought

So where do these ideas about moral decline come from?

There are two schools of thought – the first argues that with the weakening of community, we have become less friendly, kind or giving.

Proponents of this view, like Australian commentators Clive Hamilton and Hugh Mackay, argue that the breakdown of community and rise of the individual have undermined a common moral culture and a shared sense of responsibility toward others. Hamilton for example, suggests that materialism has worn away at everyday virtues of honour, courage or self-sacrifice while Mackay suggests that Australians are now less charitable, more prejudiced and less compassionate, because we’re all less focused on our communities.

But there’s another group of thinkers that don’t blame a decline in morality on the decline of community. Instead they point to the lessening of traditional sources of authority like religion. They also point to the rise of a “therapeutic culture” where we focus on improving ourselves. These thinkers see this as leading to uncaring narcissism, where self-improvement and self-gratification become the ultimate concerns of life.

For example, American thinker Christopher Lasch argues that Western culture is pathologically preoccupied with the care and well-being of the self:

“Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate”, overcoming the “fear of pleasure”.”

Not so simple

Common to both these views, is the understanding that morality has little hope in a culture where strict moral rules are no longer enforced by religion and community. A culture that values emotions and self over rule following and communal values.

But does the alleged damaged moral order just boil down to a weakening of faith, community and tradition? Such perspectives fail to acknowledge the more complex picture of morality. The first view has a romantic image of community, ignoring that communities often silence individual moral responsibility and exclude alternative moral voices.

The second view offers a simplistic view of cultures of therapy and self-fulfilment. They see them as unavoidably self-absorbed, but overlook the morally creative potential of the values of self-development. For example, does turning to “the wisdom of the east” or “eating health food” have to be read as signposts on the way to narcisstic moral impoverishment?

Does the recent growth of Buddhism in Australia, for example, not centre on an ethics of minimising suffering for self and others? Further, why is a better diet simply self-indulgent? Recent research in the area of food and the ethics of consumption shows how the growth of fair-trade and cruelty-free products, the slow food movement, practices of “buycotting” and vegetarianism can engender new modes of ethical citizenship and encourage “politics of the self”.

It seems then the jury is still out on the reasons of moral decline or whether it’s happening in the first place. But perhaps morality is in a better state than we think.

Nicholas Hookway is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania. His research focuses on how Australians grapple with questions of meaning and morality in contemporary social life. His key research interests are morality and ethics; religion and spirituality and new media and internet technologies.

This article was first published at



by Sunanda Creagh

The media, trade unions and political parties are seen as Australia’s most corrupt institutions but fewer than 1% of people have had recent direct experience of graft, a new poll shows.

The survey, titled Perceptions of corruption and ethical conduct and produced by the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, surveyed 2020 people aged 18 years and over by phone between August and September this year, with a response rate of 43%. The results were adjusted to represent the national population.

“Satisfaction with democracy in Australia remains high by international standards, although it is lower in 2012 than at any time since 1998,” the study said, with most concerns related to the quality of government.

“There is a widespread perception that corruption in Australia has increased, with 43% taking this view and 41% seeing corruption as having remained the same,” the report said.

The police and armed forces were seen as most trustworthy while the media, trade unions and political parties were seen as most corrupt.

“The media one is interesting because it confirms a finding across 25 EU countries earlier this year about the pillars of integrity in our community – the media again came down near the bottom,” said study author, Professor Adam Graycar.

“We’ve seen a number of media stories recently globally — the Murdoch scandal in the UK. There have been issues with talk back radio and the cash for comment allegations. This poll was done before the latest talk back controversy. But it’s a global phenomenon and the implications are important because of the very important role the media has in transparency,” he said.

While less than 1% of respondents said they or a relative had experienced corruption directly, “where corruption exists, it does have a serious and deleterious effect on government, on the delivery of our services and infrastructure,” said Prof Graycar.

While political parties were seen as corrupt, more than half of respondents see ‘almost none’ or ‘a few’ federal politicians as being corrupt and public scepticism of politicians’ motives has been stable since the 1990s, the study said.

Professor Mark Findlay, Deputy Director of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Criminology, said public perceptions on crime “often have very little to do either with personal experience or factual knowledge.”

“It is particularly interesting that police corruption is no longer viewed in the serious end (when, in fact, instances of such corruption, particularly in some states such as Victoria, see no sign of abating),” he said.

“This may be explained by things as tangential as new series of ‘Underbelly’ in this viewing season, or in more concrete variables such as a desire to believe in our institutions of public security in a political climate of border protection and prevailing concerns about local and national security.”

The loss of confidence in politicians and trade unions is troubling but consistent with a worldwide disillusionment with conventional institutions of representative governance,“ Prof Findlay said.

“What is more troubling is the belief in media corruption when, in other circumstances, the media is relied upon to expose public sector corruption. Maybe all this could be put down to the recent political scandals and degenerating level of political debate, and the biased and irresponsible role of individual media personalities in fuelling this state of affairs.”

Overall, respondents were mostly satisfied with the direction Australia is headed in, with the economy, immigration and employment topping respondents list of most important issues and concern for the environment on the wane.

Respondents were only asked about perceptions of corruption in public institutions, not private businesses or corporations.

Darren Palmer, Associate Professor in Criminology at Deakin University said the poll showed anti-corruption agencies needed to boost their profile.

“One of the most interesting and also somewhat surprising results is that almost half of the respondents indicate they would report suspected corruption to police. This flies in the face of the major restructure of mechanisms for dealing with corruption, whereby all jurisdictions have invested heavily in various anti-corruption agencies, including those dealing with allegations or suspicion of police corruption,” he said.

“More needs to be done by these agencies to enhance public awareness and access to their complaints processes.”

Sunanda Creagh is the Editor of  The Conversation.   Additional reporting by Bella Counihan.

This article was first published by The Conversation at


by John August

Many people, via the internet and elsewhere, have been persuading advertisers previously on Alan Jones’ program to withdraw their advertising after Jones’ latest hurtful comments against Gillard. Is this censorship ? Some people want Jones “sacked”, which would be censorship, that’s not what I’m after. I don’t want to stop him broadcasting, but I do want to reduce the financial worth of his show.

I certainly don’t agree with harassing advertisers. If we’re to claim the moral high ground, we must politely point out how we feel to advertisers, and stop buying their products if they persist with Jones – but no more. Our actions should speak for themselves, with the market mediating their effect. Otherwise, we’re subject to the hypocritical attack that bullying is somehow worse when we do it – as compared to when Jones does it – when it’s OK. Not fair, but that’s how it is – the other side have never played fair.

It’s a boycott. Originally, Charles C Boycott, after ignoring calls to charge less rent – found himself shunned by mailmen, servants, shopkeepers and others. The most well known boycott is against Nestles, for formula milk in third world countries. But, even without a boycott, we’ve always been able to buy what we want – things like free-range eggs and dolphin safe tuna.

Previously, Marrickville council chose to boycott products from Israel. Forgetting how feasible it was, it’s every councils’ choice to make its own purchasing decisions, so long as there’s a council resolution. They weren’t trying to control anyone else’s consumption choices ( which would be illegal ) – only their own. There’s no issue. And, equally, just as we can buy what we want, suppliers can sell what they want. It’s their choice. Much as those “Plain milk, no soy, no exotics, just coffee” cafes may annoy us, they can offer what like. As long as they’re not discriminating against different customers, it’s their choice.

And – ultimately – we can choose not to buy products advertised by Jones.

However, if you’re choosing not to buy something because of what the supplier is doing, it’s a good idea to tell them. Otherwise, they might think sales dropped because the wind just happened to change direction, and have no idea they can do something to improve their sales. So – again – tell them politely about what you’re doing.

Yes, harassment is bad, but at the same time using it as an excuse to stick with Jones is pretty lame. You’re justified in supporting an obnoxious shockjock, but only because people are trying to stop you ? What if people weren’t trying to stop you ? What would you do then ? It’s also no excuse to say that you’re just buying advertising, and don’t “support” Alan Jones. You don’t just buy advertising – you “buy into” Jones.

That claim has been echoed by 2GB’s boss, Russel Tate, claiming it’s a private and commercial arrangement, with advertisers only wanting Jones’ audience without seeking to endorse Jones. I don’t think so. You buy into the whole deal. Jones is a powerful persona, able to attract a loyal audience. You don’t passively buy that strength, any more than you can passively make a deal with the Devil. Identification with Jones comes as an integral part of the package.

The issue is whether 2GB should be able to make money from Alan Jones without the advertisers being held accountable by consumers. Advertisers should always be free to advertise on Jones program. And we should not waste our freedom to make an organised response.

Jones is quite a piece of work. He’s been pissing off a lot of people for a long time. Yes a democracy should be a “plurality”. But it is strange how the well resourced with obnoxious platforms and positions who spread falsehoods are the very people who hide behind the defence of “freedom of speech”.

But Jones has done more than expressed opinions. He has expressed falsehoods and caused harm. Hiding behind “freedom of speech” is a bit rich. He’s already put his foot in his mouth numerous times, and has been embroiled in numerous court cases. There’s a strong pent-up feeling, and this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. People have been complaining about Jones for as long as we can all remember – to no effect. We’ve been ignored by the station – and so have been forced to do something else. If he previously shot himself in the foot, this time he’s managed to blow away his whole leg.

In a sense this isn’t news. We all knew how Jones really felt. I’m not surprised by what Jones said. Yawn. And maybe this drip-by-drip saturation coverage progression was even less news. But the media are like a pack of wolves. They’ve found a new scent, and after pursuing their quarry, have started to circle. They’re looking for weakness, like Jones did when the shoe was on the other foot. That’s what they do. No surprise there, either.

Sure, advertise with Jones and access his audience. You’ll get some sales – at the same time as non-listeners might stop buying. And perhaps that loss will exceed the gain that Jones so kindly gave you.

Over time, perhaps we’ll start to catalogue these choices – and we’ll be able to quantify this loss and report it to advertisers. We need to make a credible case, and show just how much the dollar value of their sales has declined. If they’re concerned about sales, if they’re concerned about the value of their brand, if they’re concerned about shareholder value – they’ll have to take it on board. All very polite. No harassment. Business is business, after all.

Is this censorship ? No, it’s the market at work.

We’re advertised at. Advertisers ramp up their organisation to persuade us to part with our money. At times, we’ll even buy stuff on a false apprehension. It’s rarely an issue. Now, we’re becoming organised in reaction to the situation, participating in the market, and are more aware of our consumption decisions. Isn’t that the whole idea ? Why would anyone complain?

Still, there’s a bit more to it. If you run a restaurant, it doesn’t matter how many people refuse to eat there, so long as you can get enough Jones supporters to fill it. Some small traders will be able embrace Jones – and the market will provide. Not a problem. Leave them to wallow in the swamp … they’re welcome to it.

However, if you’re running a larger business, these relative numbers count – we’re talking about total sales over a whole city, not just how many people will fill a restaurant. There’ll always be competitors – including smaller businesses who don’t support Jones – and you’ll be using Jones to guide your customers to them.

We all know how the total Jones listenership is in fact pretty low. Jones has a disproportionate influence compared to the number of people who actually listen. Yes, yes. The Jones phenomenon. We know that.

At some point there will be a crossover, and Jones will be denied advertising from businesses greater than a particular size. If anyone wants to have a go at calculating it, let me know what it is. But, for the moment, all we need to know is that there is such a size. So, rather than running a radio “show”, the Jones’ program will become what will be effectively a private podcast, supported by advertisers who are members of his tribe. It might as well be the “podcast listeners” – and it just happens to be broadcast on AM radio rather than actually be a podcast.

It will, nevertheless, be quite an improvement. Jones and his supporters, collected together in a circle, squinting, looking at the outside world, paranoid, isolated and worried. The Jones fishbowl, only now it will be so much more obvious. And rather less profitable, too.

Actually, I never would have had a problem with Alan Jones running a private podcast for those who want to listen. Or a paper or email newsletter. No censorship, remember ?

I find it easy to believe that, with a little organisation, we can make the number of people choosing not to buy because of Jones exceed those who would have because of him – at least, for the larger firms. Now, and sustainably into the future. I dearly hope so. We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly, I’ll continue to do my bit.

Along the way many firms will have publicly distanced themselves from him. A few businesses will persist as die-hard supporters, but that’s no issue.

The market at work. Delivering better outcomes for us all. Let us all kneel before the altar of capitalism. Lovely. Facilitated by the market, our individual wills influence production decisions in the world around us, making it a better place for us all. It’s so nice when things work.

Let’s hope the market works properly in this case … Why would we expect otherwise ?

In real life, working hard only takes you so far. Those who go all the way — to grand fortune — typically get a substantial head start. So documents an entertaining, baseball-themed new analysis of the Forbes 400.

Let’s cut Mitt Romney some slack. Not every off-the-cuff comment the GOP White House hopeful made at that now infamous, secretly taped $50,000-a-plate fundraiser last May in Boca Raton reveals an utterly shocking personal failing. Take, for instance, Mitt’s remark that he has “inherited nothing.”

A variety of commentators have jumped on Romney for that line. They’ve pointed out that Mitt, the son of a wealthy corporate CEO, has enjoyed plenty of privilege, everything from an elite private school education to a rolodex full of rich family friends he could tap to start up his business career.

On top of all that, the young Mitt also enjoyed $1 million worth of stock his father threw his way to tide him over until big paydays started arriving.

Not quite “nothing.” But no reason to pick on Mitt either. Most really deep pockets, not just Mitt, consider themselves entirely “self-made.” The best evidence of this predilection to claim “self-made” status? The annual September release of the Forbes magazine list of America’s 400 richest.

Each and every year Forbes celebrates the billionaires who populate this list as paragons of entrepreneurial get-up-and-go. The latest top 400, Forbes pronounced last week, “instills confidence that the American dream is still very much alive.”

Of America’s current 400 richest, gushes Forbes, 70 percent “made their fortunes entirely from scratch.”

Forbes made the same observation last year, too, and most news outlets took that claim at face value. Researchers at United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based group, did not. UFE analysts stepped back and took the time to investigate the actual backgrounds of last year’s Forbes 400. They released their findings last week, on the same day Forbes released its new 2012 top 400 list.

The basic conclusion from these findings: Forbes is spinning “a misleading tale of what it takes to become wealthy in America.” Most of the Forbes 400 have benefited from a level of privilege unknown to the vast majority of Americans.

In effect, as commentator Jim Hightower has aptly been noting for years, most of our super rich were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

In its just-released new report, United for a Fair Economy extends this baseball analogy to last year’s Forbes 400. UFE defines as “born in the batter’s box” those Forbes 400 rich who hail from poor to middle-class circumstances. Some had nothing growing up. Others had parents who ran small businesses.

About 95 percent of Americans, overall, currently live in these “batter’s box” situations. Just over a third, 35 percent, of the Forbes 400 come from these backgrounds.

Just over 3 percent of the Forbes 400, the United for a Fair Economy researchers found, have left no good paper trail on their actual economic backgrounds. Of the over 60 percent remaining, all grew up in substantial privilege.

Those “born on first base” — in upper-class families, with inheritances up to $1 million — make up 22 percent of the 400. On “second base,” households wealthy enough to run a business big enough to generate inheritances over $1 million, the new UFE study found another 11.5 percent.

On “third base,” with inherited wealth over $50 million, sit 7 percent of America’s 400 richest. Last but not least, the “born on home plate” crowd. These high-rollers, 21.25 percent of the total Forbes list, all inherited enough to “earn” their way into top 400 status.

Last year, a rich American had to be worth at least $1.05 billion to make the Forbes 400. This year’s entry threshold: $1.1 billion, the highest ever.

, the United for a Fair Economy researchers sum up, has glamorized the myth of the “self-made man” and minimized “the many other factors that enable wealth,” most notably the tax breaks and other government policies that help the really rich get ever richer.

The narrative of wealth and achievement that Forbes is pushing, the new UFE study adds, “ignores the other side of the coin — namely, that the opportunity to build wealth is not equally or broadly shared in contemporary society.”

And many of those who do have that opportunity — like the mega millionaires in Boca Raton who applauded so warmly when Mitt Romney asserted he had “inherited nothing” — see absolutely no reason to turn that coin over.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online Institute for Policy Studiesweekly on excess and inequality. 

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