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Why Did "I Paid A Bribe" Fail In China? It's More Complicated Than You Think

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, January 8 2014

Report corruption here. (Flickr/WatchSmart)

A paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, explains “Why 'I-Paid-A-Bribe' Worked in India but Failed in China.”

I Paid A Bribe is a crowdsourced corruption watchdog site. Citizens submit anonymous reports of corruption they have encountered or endured, which sometimes leads to action taken against specific figures, like the official who demanded a bribe from Bangalore student Shubham Kahndelwal before he would provide him with an identity card. After Kahndelwal reported the event on I Paid A Bribe, disciplinary action was taken against the offending official.

Although not all incidents are addressed as successfully as that, the Janaagraha Centre, which oversees I Paid A Bribe, tracks anonymous reports to discover trends and uses that information to suggest anti-corruption tactics to the government.

I Paid A Bribe has been a success in India (although, as noted in a techPresident piece before, it does little to curb the high level corruption in the upper echelons of politics and society in India). Not so in China, where similar sites shut down within months of launching.

In the essay “Authoritarian Restraints on Online Activism Revisited: Why “I-Paid-A-Bribe” Worked in India but Failed in China,” Ang explores why that is.

On the surface it might seem a mere matter of suppression by a disapproving state (many of the copycat sites were forcibly shut down), but Ang says the consequences of authoritarian rule are more profound and insidious than that.

Many media and scholarly articles attribute I Paid A Bribe's failure in China to the authoritarian state's disapproval, but these reports are “partial and even inaccurate," Ang writes. She elaborates:

By tracing the spread and demise of IPAB in China and comparing it to the dynamics in India, I draw two counter-observations. First, Chinese state authorities did not clamp down on IPAB immediately or resolutely. Instead, their responses vacillated between approval and suppression. Furthermore, consistent with the model of “fragmented authoritarianism,” state responses appeared divided across ministries and levels of government. Second, even before these IPAB sites were officially closed down, these Chinese portals were plagued by internal problems of organization, including mismanagement, opportunism, and narrow goals of anti-corruption, which were comparatively absent in India.

It comes down to, Ang argues, a lack of experience performing civic engagement:

The organizational problems seen in China’s IPAB sites do not suggest that Chinese netizens are intrinsically deficient. Rather, I argue, they may be traced to prolonged restrictions placed against autonomous NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and free association under non-democratic rule. China lacks autonomous and professional NGOs that can channel online activism into constructive policy engagement and public education. The equivalent of India’s Janaagraha Centre, an NGO dedicated to monitoring government, is not permitted in China. In the absence of professional and autonomous organizers, the underlying lack of experience with and knowledge about constructive norms of civic engagement among netizens is left unfiltered and exposed. For these reasons, we see instances of venting, personal vengeance, and profiteering through IPAB in China. Furthermore, an analysis of web content reveals a striking lack of appreciation among Chinese netizens of the original mission of IPAB in combating petty corruption as a systemic problem. Instead, the focus of China’s IPAB was on exposing and arresting corrupt individuals, echoing the state’s own rhetoric of corruption as a problem of bad agents, rather than of structural political and economic factors.

In this short video, Ang explains why China actually fights petty corruption better than India:

h/t DemocracySpot

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