Since Xi Jinping took over the multiple reins of leadership in China he has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on corruption.

Government officials at heights or with connections generally considered to be safe have not been spared. A notorious example is Zhou Yongkang, former chief of China's internal security, who is the first member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, the highest level of leadership, to have been investigated in Communist Party history. 

Zhou Yongkang. (Flickr/thierry ehrmann.)

The breadth and depth of the campaign has led to considerable speculation as to its larger purpose. The Economist has argued it is about purging the party of opposition to Xi. The Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post suggests it is an effort to shore up legitimacy among the Chinese populace, fed up with the rampant and obvious misuse of public funds.

But those found guilty have not necessarily done anything different or more egregious in the last two years than they had been doing before. And it is reasonable to assume that they have not done anything vastly more corrupt than many of their peers. It is difficult to imagine that anyone at the higher levels of business or politics has made it that far without engaging in what we in Australia would consider corrupt behaviour. 

While there is no doubt that Xi's campaign is both qualitatively and quantitatively more intense than anti-corruption drives in the past, it is instructive to reflect on what corruption means in the Chinese social and cultural context.

Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong explains that relationships among people are totally different in Western and Chinese societies. In China, social relations are fundamentally based on a system of obligation and reciprocation that is quite different from societies like Australia. In Chinese society, helping others carries an inherent obligation to repay the favour, both to avoid losing face as well as for self-interest. As one worker explained, 'if one does not…spend some effort to keep up good relations…a day is bound to come when one needs to cross the same river again, but will find no bridge left'.

One example of what is seen in Australia as corruption but in China as simply reciprocating favours is the relationship between parents and their children's teachers. In 2009 a story broke in the Australian news of Chinese parents trying to bribe their child's primary school teachers to help him get into a selective high school. Australians were outraged at this transgression of proper social behaviour. 

I remember reading this story with amusement as well as some sympathy for the parents. Not long before I saw this story I was lecturing at a university in Beijing. I taught several classes of students from various majors, across several year groups. Around the time of the mid-year exams I was offered a number of rather lovely gifts from students and their parents with the not always entirely implicit message that they hoped I would consider their exam efforts favourably. This giving of gifts in exchange for positive consideration was perfectly standard practice. Students were surprised that I was surprised. 

At the end of the year when I submitted my final grades to the university, I was told by my department that the marks I had given were too low, and that I should revise them so as not to spoil my students' grade point average, and because having such low grades could adversely affect my performance review and associated annual bonus. My annual bonus could also be affected if any students looked like they were going to fail. Indeed I was told that if a student performed badly, I should give them as many chances to resubmit as it would take for them to pass. It was generally accepted that students at that university needed, and therefore would get, particularly high grades. If they didn't, it was my responsibility to fix it. My bonus depended on it. 

Were these cases of corruption? They were certainly not perceived as being so by anyone else in the same situation. What is considered corrupt behaviour in China is neither comparable to how we understand it, nor is it a fixed phenomenon. The rules are not clear across cultures, and now increasingly it seems this is the case even within China. What was acceptable three years ago is apparently not acceptable today. It is not clear who knows what will be acceptable tomorrow. When I recently arranged an informal lunch with a Chinese government counterpart, he told me he would have to confirm our arrangements on the morning of our planned lunch date, as the rules might have changed by that day. The lack of clarity about what constitutes intolerable corruption is creating uncertainty among Chinese officials.

The crackdown on corruption in China does respond to a genuine misuse of power by some government officials. But to understand how far the campaign will go, and what its purpose is, corruption in China also needs to be seen in the context of a long tradition of social relations that are very different from those we are used to in Australia. Seen in this broader context, it would seem that however vigorous the anti-corruption campaign is, it can never truly go all the way; it must necessarily be selective and limited.

Targeting some officials over others without clear guidelines around what is and is not acceptable surely also opens the possibility of fomenting resentment in those very people Xi is trying to manage and control. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann