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Imperial Corruption

The Western mind is accustomed to the system of the common purse for one administrative area, into which all receipts are covered without being ear-marked for a definite purpose, and from which all payments are made irrespective of the source from which the funds are derived; it is also accustomed to a complete severance of the budgets of the different administrative areas-national, state, and municipal in America; national, county, and municipal in Great Britain; Imperial, royal, and municipal in Germany-with some exceptions, such as educational expenditure in Great Britain, and those due to more centralised forms of government, as in France.

Furthermore, the underlying principle, more or less lived up to, in the West is that every penny taken directly from the taxpayer is covered into the official treasury, and from the same source is provided every penny of the cost of administration. This makes it more difficult for the Occidental to project his mind into the system which prevailed in China, and still more difficult for him to distinguish, in the mass of what appears to be gross irregularity, what is due to the system and what to administrative and financial corruption.

The student of history will recall the administrative system of Europe of, say, four of five centuries ago, and, if he has any knowledge of China, will find many points of resemblance in matters which to-day have come to be reprobated; but any comparison is vitiated by the real difference between the feudal organisation of Europe of that time, and the consolidated government of China, with the Son of Heaven at the top and the mass of the people at the bottom, the emperor's representatives, the officials appointed by his centralised power, forming the link between the two.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the income of the Chinese official was not in any degree measured by his official salary, that the annual profit of his office may be 2 Tls. 100,000, with an official salary not exceeding Tls. 1000 [Tls. is the symbol for "Taels" or Chinese ounces of silver; ]. This sounds terrible to us; and yet we do not have to go very far back to find a condition similar in kind, though perhaps not in degree, existing in Western countries.

The Chinese official was less an administrator than a tax-collector ; but an infinitesimal portion of his revenues is wasted on such heads of expenditure as police, justice, roads, education, fire prevention, sanitation, or other of the numerous expenses falling on the official purse in the West. So far as could be seen, he existed solely for his own maintenance and that of his fellow officials, his superiors, and his subordinates. This principle he, with his superior innate capacity, had developed further than was ever done in the West.

But the West can furnish, within comparatively modern times, some similitudes which will enable present-day readers to understand more clearly the system as it is to-day in China. The revenue returnable from each administrative area in China - town, county, or province - was assessed at a certain fixed sum, which, more or less, was the minimum which must be accounted for, and in practice this minimum constituted the maximum sum which is returned. What is this but the system which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, furnished the bloated fortunes of the farmers-general of France? The administration of justice in China created no charge upon the official revenues, but maintained itself from fees and exactions. Judge Jeffreys is infamous in history, but he furnished no exception to the practice of his day in swelling the revenues of his king and his country from the fees and fines of his court, and in augmenting his own official income from the same source. Every Chinese official takes for himself, without question, the interest on his official balances; so did the English Paymasters of the Forces up to the time of Pitt, and probably for many years after his time; certainly until after Fox was appointed to the post.

Even late 19th Century America, with the foundations of its government freed from all feudal substructure, in some of its legitimate and legalised practices, furnished a moderate example of what, in China, was immoderate. The office of the Sheriff of the County of New York was maintained on the principles inherited from the England of the eighteenth century; he received a salary ($5000) and fees (averaging $60,000), and himself paid the salaries of his deputies, and provided for the expenses of his office. This is the Chinese system, except that, in China, the fees are taken and the work not done. Outside legitimate American practice there was in "Tammany" a word which recalls practices known to exist, in a greater or less degree, in all occidental countries, and reaching, in the Occident, their most perfected development in certain of the great cities of the Newer West. But these were but crude attempts, punished when detected and subjected to legal proof, of what, in China, is the ordinary practice, of everyday occurrence, and never punished, because it is a part of the system of government.

These instances are adduced not in any way to belittle the (what twentieth-century views call) administrative corruption of the Chinese Empire, but to bring home to the Western mind the underlying principle upon which the Chinese, system is based.

Another distinction between the fiscal systems of the East and West is in the "common purse." In England all national official revenue is covered into the Exchequer, in America into the Treasury. In China, theory and practice are divergent: in theory, everything is subject to the emperor - land, property, and revenue; in practice, the revenue is assigned piecemeal from certain sources of collection to certain defined heads of Imperial expenditure, and must be remitted independently for the purposes assigned.

One province, for example, may be assessed Tls. 500,000 as the collection for the year; instead of remitting this to the Imperial Treasury, or holding it subject to the order of the Treasury, Tls. 100,000 will be remitted direct to the Shanghai Taotai for the service of the foreign debt, Tls. 50,000 will be remitted to the same officer for account of legations abroad, Tls. 200,000 will be sent to Honan for Yellow River Flood Prevention account, Tls. 50,000 will be retained for renewal of the provincial coast defences, Tls. 50,000 will be sent to Peking for the Imperial household, and Tls. 50,000 will be assigned for the upkeep of the Imperial mausolea.

From some other source of revenue grants may be made to supplement the revenues of a poorer province; of the eighteen provinces, thirteen forward such grants in aid, and nine receive them, five both granting and receiving. We may even have province A remitting to B, B in turn to C, and C remitting to A, but each one of the three will remit in full; no attempt is ever made to strike a balance and receive or remit the difference; to do this would deprive some hard-working official of the fruits of his industry, in the profit derivable from the mere act of remitting. To prepare a national budget of revenue and expenditure would, in Parker's phrase, "puzzle the shrewdest firm of chartered accountants."

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:38:55 ZULU