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Does virtue justify corruption?
(Beijing Review)
Updated: 2005-09-07 09:17

Linxiang is an obscure county-level city in southern Hunan Province. In the last several weeks, this unknown city has been thrusted into the limelight for the conviction of its former vice mayor, Yu Bin, on corruption charges.

CONTROVERSY: Should bribery be used to suport the poor?

According to the court ruling, Yu was charged with taking bribes of 95,000 yuan ($11,700) and other illegal payments worth 100,000 yuan ($12,300). Found guilty, Yu has been sentenced to three years in jail with a five-year suspension. The penalty also includes the confiscation of 60,000 yuan ($7,400) worth of property.

People have had different reactions and ferocious debates on the deeds of Yu Bin and the court’s final verdict. Some people argue that Yu was a virtuous public official, for he had spent the majority of his bribery money on supporting needy people and public undertakings since 2002. So they believe that Yu should not have been convicted. At least, they claimed, Yu’s deeds were better than the corrupt officials who used bribes to purchase luxurious houses and support mistresses.

However, another view is that Yu deserves his sentence and that the punishment is too lenient given that his guilt is clear.

Punishment Too Harsh

Liao Zusheng (freelance writer): I have always hated those corrupt officials who try their hardest to pocket money from the government and taxpayers. But I have no hatred for Yu Bin, who has been convicted of corruption charges, and I even respect him to some extent.

UNJUSTIFIABLE ACT: Yu Bin, the accused official [sina]
People may wonder if Yu, as a vice mayor, did have concerns about the well-being of disadvantaged people and why he did not perform his duty to sort it out. The report from a local newspaper solves the puzzle. According to the report, evidence demonstrates that the local government allocates a paltry sum of 10,000 yuan ($1,200) to the vice mayor every year, which also includes the expenses for Yu’s business car. This is to say, without financial support from the local government, Yu could do nothing to help people in need in spite of his wish to do so. The low efficiency of government is known to all. Under such circumstances, what other choices did Yu Bin have other than adopting radical means to help poverty-stricken people? Wait for the reform of the system? Till when? One thing to note is that some of the people suffering could not withstand the wait.

As a vice mayor, Yu was fully aware of what was in store for him once his bribery was exposed. The reason he insisted on taking bribes and spending the money on charity is that he placed the plight of the people above everything else, including his political career. He took great risks for the sake of his people, which makes him much more glorious than the corrupt officials who use bribes to pay for a luxurious life. I believe the people who were aided by Yu would be grateful to the local government, thanks to Yu’s timely help. The nature of an event is determined by three criteria: the intention, the process and the result. As for the corruption of Yu Bin, instead of pocketing the bribery, he spent it on undertakings that should have been carried out by the local government. What should he be blamed for? If an official like Yu was jailed for taking an unusual track to serve the people, what is the message carried by the severe punishment to Yu’s peers? It is that turning a blind eye to the sufferings of the masses is much better than helping the populace in unusual ways.

Of course, Yu is not a good model from the perspective of law. In a modern society, basic order should be maintained by the rule of law. The efforts to help the poor must not disobey the law even if your intention is good. On the other hand, Yu’s case is quite special given that he is unusual in caring about people more than his own career advancement.

Zhen Duo (reader of Chongqing Morning Post): First of all, the accusations against Yu of taking bribes are unfounded according to China’s Criminal Law. According to the law, whether one commits the crime of bribe-taking depends on whether he has been asked to seek illegal profits for the bribe giver. In Yu’s case, we see that Yu sought improper profits for the benefit of others, and not for the reasons given by the court verdict.

Second, Yu’s action of supporting the disadvantaged with illegal income should be classified as refusing bribes. Since 1995, “the anti-corruption accounts” have been set up all over the country, where officials can anonymously deposit money equivalent to the bribes they have accepted (which may have been cash, presents or securities) within a given time. The officials can be treated the same way as those who have rejected bribes if they are investigated in the future for bribery. The founding of such an account offers officials who have received bribes a last chance to save themselves, reflecting the combination of the rule of law and the rule of virtue. One motivation of the government in launching such an account is to use bribes for the people. However, according to the verdict of the court, “Once the action of taking bribes was committed by Yu Bin, the whereabouts of the bribery would not affect the nature of the crime.” In line with such logic, those who submit bribes to the “anti-corruption account” cannot be absolved from bribe-taking either.

Moreover, evidence has already demonstrated that the large majority of Yu’s bribery income has already been spent on public welfare, whereas the verdict of the court demanded that Yu’s bribes and illegal income be retrieved and submitted to the national treasury. Why should the money be retrieved as it already has been spent on public welfare? If the money is retrieved according to law, is the local government required to pay for Yu’s spending on public welfare? Above all, it is the responsibility of the local government to pay for those adventures.

Huang Huanjin (Bureau of Statistics of Nanning City): Yu Bin has made mistakes, although he did not necessarily commit crimes. It was wrong for him to ignore the current system and adopt a cavaliere way of taking from the rich to help the poor. However, one thinks differently if the issue is viewed from the perspective of the flaws in the existing system as opposed to the individual.

One common phenomenon under the current system is that honest and industrious officials tend to get corrupted easily once they attain certain power. In such an environment, the “virtuous bribe-taking” is far from the worst practice.

From my point of view, the crime of bribe-taking should not be defined by the act of taking others’ money, but what the official did with the money and the result. For example, if an official supports the most needy people in society after receiving money from others instead of putting it into his or her own pocket, this official should not be charged with taking bribes. As a matter of fact, this act is to help the government by “transforming payments.”

For sure, if officials fail to seek interests for bribe givers after taking their money, nobody would bribe. Thus, an investigation into the way bribe takers deal with bribers’ money is even more significant.

Punishment Too Lenient

Hou Guoyun (professor at the China University of Political Science and Law): Yu’s act of supporting the poor with bribery income has aroused broad sympathy from the public. Yet only those who know nothing about China’s Criminal Law would say Yu has not committed a crime. Actually, there is no doubt about Yu’s bribe-taking charge.

It is clearly stipulated in Article 385 of China’s Criminal Law that any State employee who violates State regulations by accepting rebates or service charges of various descriptions and taking them into his own possession shall be regarded as guilty of acceptance of bribes and punished for it. Obviously, Yu’s case possesses all the elements of a case of acceptance of bribes.

In the Criminal Law, however, how the bribe is used is not an element constituting the crime of bribe-taking. Therefore, however the bribe is spent, the nature of the case is not changed.

But, given the fact that Yu spent the money on charity, the court could consider a lighter punishment, though too much lenience should not be allowed. Otherwise, it will become a form of confirmation and encouragement of the action of taking bribes to support the poor. According to the sentencing criteria in China’s Criminal Law, those taking a bribe between 50,000-100,000 yuan ($6,200-12,300) should be sentenced to imprisonment between five-10 years. Accordingly, I suppose the punishment of three years in jail with a five-year suspension on Yu, who has taken a bribe of 95,000 yuan ($11,700), is too lenient.

Zhou Shu (judge at the People’s Court of Gaoyou City): If the court retried this case and announced that spending bribes on public welfare did not constitute a crime, what would the social impact be?

Maybe many netizens would be morally supportive of this verdict.

However, it would give prosecutors a hard job in the future. Before, according to the definition of the crime of bribe-taking in China’s Criminal Law, prosecutors could easily complete their job based on the fact that the suspects accepted bribes and sought profits for others by using power. If this case set a precedent in asserting that it is all right to use bribes to support the poor, prosecutors would in the future have a hard time proving that bribes are used by suspects for personal consumption. It would make the filing of lawsuits regarding bribe-taking much more difficult.

Government officials who are going to take or have already taken bribes suddenly find themselves with a perfect excuse to evade criminal responsibilities once they are sued. They could say, “I admit that I accepted some money, but I have used it for good causes.”

Probably suspects of other crimes could also be inspired by the precedent of innocence. It might suddenly occur to them that whether their money was attained by theft, fraud or robbery, as long as it was used for good deeds, they do not have to worry about being put in jail. Instead, they could earn a good reputation. Thieves could donate stolen money to school dropouts in poverty-stricken areas; swindlers could give away money to poor students; and even robbers could donate money to charity.

What a ridiculous scenario this would be!

Qiu Liping (professor at Shanghai University): Many netizens have sympathy for Yu Bin. Why? On the one hand, they lack legal consciousness and cannot differentiate from the concept of criminal action and that of criminal motive. On the other hand, the masses have set a too low standard for a good official, which is itself a thought-provoking question.

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