My Manila Times column for yesterday (Saturday) is about a topic that should probably get more attention from one certain active economic sector in this country as well as, I discovered after I wrote it, those political personalities who like to imagine themselves champions of the “anti-corruption” cause, and the people who actually believe them.
The essential facts of the original story, which was first reported by Reuters, is that the highly-publicized and aggressive anti-corruption campaign of the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is wreaking havoc on the casino industry of Macau, which relies on Chinese high-rollers brought to the city by junket operators for about two-thirds of its $45 billion or so in annual gambling revenue.
Casinos are an excellent place to launder bribes and other ill-gotten wealth, which is precisely what a significant number of junket clients – some government officials, others crooked businessmen – have been doing. The Chinese government, not being staffed by complete idiots, has been leaning on the junket operators to divulge information about their clientele, which has spooked illegitimate and innocent customers alike. As a result, the junket operators have either dropped out of the business, or have looked for alternatives farther away from prying Chinese eyes in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Macau’s gaming industry will see revenues shrink by about $15 billion this year, and will probably not see them return. The casino industry is hoping the mass market will take up some of the slack, but they’re realistic about it – some VIP rooms are already closing, and there is a sense that the industry on the whole will have to contract a bit to stay healthy, which is in no sense a comforting outlook with regional competition on the rise.
In my column I opined that Macau’s woes present a dubious sort of opportunity for the gaming industry in the Philippines, which is currently the focus of a great deal of perhaps over-optimistic development investment. But in a conversation with my editor after the column had gone to print, she pointed out that there is an entirely different issue revealed in this story.
The reason the Chinese anti-corruption drive is perceived to be effective, according to my editor, is that each case that is brought to the public’s attention has a consistently definitive result. Bo Xilai, the individual in that picture up there who looks like he’s having a really bad day (he was, as a matter of fact), is a perfect example: He was a top official, and a very popular one, well-known and respected not only on his own turf in Chongqing but nationally as well. After his wife had someone murdered, the cover under which Bo’s own backroom dealings were hidden completely unraveled, and he was brought up on a variety of corruption and abuse of power charges, subjected to a speedy and efficient trial, and handed a life sentence. He is probably lucky he didn’t get the death penalty, but for convicted corrupt officials in China it seems a fine distinction – he has vanished from the public consciousness so completely he might as well be dead.
I am not, and I doubt my editor is, either, so naïve as to believe that two years of an aggressive program under Xi has made a real dent yet in the endemic corruption in China, nor that there are not political motivations behind many of the cases. No government or hubris-filled “reformer” can completely “stamp out corruption”; even in places like lily-white Singapore not a week passes without news of some erring official or business executive being brought to account for stepping over legal and ethical boundaries. What a sincere, sustained, and practical effort against corruption can achieve, however, is to establish new norms. Yes, corruption still does occur in “corruption-free” places like Singapore and always will, because some individuals will always be outliers; the norm, however, is different, and it makes identifying and removing those outliers quickly much easier and less disruptive.
China has an awfully long way to go to reach that “established norm,” but there are indications it is heading in the right direction, and what has happened in Macau is evidence of that. Whether focusing on the Macau junket trade actually results in any evildoers being collared is beside the point; a key enabler of corruption has been removed, and almost instantly at that – in just three months this year, Macau’s casino revenue dropped by half. That’s problematic for the economy of Macau, of course, but on the other hand, relying on money-laundering for a little more than half of your semi-autonomous city-state’s tax base is not really a prudent or sustainable economic model.
Compare that progress – to say nothing of the ‘norm’ in even more developed places – to the current state of the Philippines, especially in light of the near-constant and obviously cynical political noise made about “fighting corruption,” and the prospects for this country’s making even the slightest progress towards ethically evolving appear dim indeed. In China, if you are found guilty of corruption, you’re gone. Out of sight, out of mind, with no reputation or even a name any more, and sure as hell no chance of ever getting near another position of responsibility or influence if freedom at some point in the distant future is even an option, which it more often than not isn’t. Here, being corrupt – which is a judgment left to the public media sphere – makes one a celebrity. A serial insurrectionist gets elected to the Senate from inside a jail cell; a deposed and actually convicted President who is still on the list of the world’s worst plunderers is handily elected to the Mayor’s office of a major city.
A police general who has let a large part of his force deteriorate into a criminal mob and has been exposed by his own boss (although one must assume unintentionally, considering the doltish source of the revelations) among others as having received millions in property as inappropriate gifts or outright bribes is staunchly defended by the President, rather than being immediately fired and hauled to court on criminal charges.
The reason the Philippines will never even begin to curb corruption is because no one in this country is really willing to consider corruption repugnant instead of entertaining. And we in the media are probably as much to blame for this as anyone else; we dutifully report the day-to-day dramatics of people like Janet Lim Napoles and Gigi Reyes as though their jailhouse health complaints were somehow actually relevant, and we tell ourselves we need to do it to keep up with the market, because it’s what people want to read, watch, and listen to. On the other hand, the voices from the audience demanding a better, more honorable product are pretty faint, if they even exist and we aren’t just imagining we hear their occasional murmur.
It’s not enough to change the rules, or change the system, or change the people in it – what this country needs is to change its soul. And I’m not sure that’s even possible.