Bureaucratic corruption in nineteenth-century China


Chong-chor Lau

Rance P.L. Lee

TitleBureaucratic corruption in nineteenth-century China
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateDecember, 1978

Civil service

Officials and employees

Politics and government
19th century

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:

In this paper, the problem of corruption in the imperial bureaucracy of China during the last six reigns (1796-1911) of the Ch’ing dynasty were examined on the basis of the data from the Ta-Ch’ing Huang ti Shih-lu (i.e., the Veritable Records of the Ch’ing Emperor). It should be noted that the Shih-lu recorded only the convicted cases. The present paper faces the same limitation as those studies using court cases. Some cases might have been covered up and were this not detected and published. The research findings in this paper should be treated as suggestive rather than conclusive. To defend the methodology, we like to point out that it is difficult, if not impossible, for any study on corruption to avoid facing the problem of relying on soft or incomplete data.


In order to describe the corruption phenomenon and analyze its causes and consequences, this paper has made attempts to quantify the documentary materials excerpted from the Shih-lu. No statistical test of significance was attempted, because we dealt with all the convicted cases throughout the entire period of 1796-1911, instead of dealing with a sample of cases.

It was found that corruption, as defined by the legal authority, was widespread in the Ch’ing bureaucracy, especially at the lower levels of the administrative hierarchy. About seven per cent of all the convicted offenses (N = 31,656) over the century was classified by the Shih-lu as corruption cases. As many corrupt deals involved secrecy and mutual benefit, the percentage suggests that corruption in the Ch’ing administration was quite widespread. Further analysis shows that the corrupt payments were more likely to come directly from the people than from the government revenue, and that his was particularly the case among local officials such as the county and prefectural magistrates.


The Ch’ing government used both moral and structural approaches to combat corruption. Officials were required to thoroughly study the Confucian moral principles and were expected to observe them in the performance of official duties. Structural measures included the system of accountability, the rules of prohibiting any official to serve in his native district or to serve in a district continuously for more than a few years, and the imposition of heavy penalty on corrupt officials. In spite of these moral and structural measures, corruption remained prevalent throughout the Empire.


The emphasis on particularistic relationships and tolerance might be some of the cultural or attitudinal forces that were conducive to the prevalence of corruption. The present paper, however, has emphasized the possibility that corruption was a product of some structural conditions within the Ch’ing bureaucracy. First, the salary scales were unrealistic. With the limited amount of income from legal sources, the officials and their clerks were unable to meet the required social and administrative expenses. It was not only desirable but also a matter of necessity for them embezzle public funds and to receive illegal payments from the people. Second, the law was general in nature, giving officials a great deal of discretion power. It was difficult for the official who normally assumed both judicial and executive duties to resist the temptation of misappropriating the general law for personal gain. Third, the officials were generalists by training and were in favor of an “amateur” style of life. Meanwhile, the rules of avoidance and periodical transfer made them unable to get familiar with the local conditions.


Consequently, the officials were both unwilling and unable to do his job. They became heavily dependent upon their office clerks for carrying out the various official duties. The great discretion power of the officials were often let to the clerks. The clerks became lords on the local scene and were in a good position to demand improper fees. The officials corrupted and so did the clerks. They received illegal payments not only from the people, but also from the subordinate officials and clerks. Networks of corruption thus emerged, and corrupt practices became widespread in the Ch’ing administration.


The Ch’ing regime placed a great emphasis on political stability and integration. But the quantitative data together with the case materials suggest that despite the existence of a culture of tolerance, corruption was a source of social unrest over the century. This finding lends support to the general proposition that corruption was dysfunctional to political development. Implications of the above research findings from the nineteenth-century China are multifold. Let us suggest a few as follows:

1. Heavy penalty has been widely regarded as an effective measure against corruption. In the case of Hong Kong, for instance, the law has been increasingly harsh toward corruption. As suggested by the data in this paper, heavy punishments alone can hardly deter corruption. Its effectiveness would have to depend not only on the cultural attitudes but also on the structural conditions of the bureaucracy. Under certain cultural norms (e.g., particularism and tolerance) and structural conditions (e.g., unrealistic salary, overdependency on supporting staff, and great discretion power), the officials may deem in both desirable and necessary to gain improper income. The penalty is heavy, but the temptation is greater. The bureaucratic structures and the cultural climate should therefore be carefully examined and reformed so as to reduce the pressures toward corruption.

2. Unrealistic salary scale is one of the structural conditions conducive to corruption. Whether or tot the salary scale in realistic depends not only on the absolute amount of payment but also on the social and administrative requirement. In many societies including Hong Kong, attempts have been made to increase the salaries of government officials and their supporting staff, but what is also needed is the attempt to reduce the social and administrative requirements. No matter how sizable is the salary, an official has to corrupt if (1) he cannot meet the administrative expenses for running the office and (2) he is expected to maintain a high level of consumption and to fulfill a number of social obligations

3. In many developing countries including Hong Kong, the officials are generally regarded as governing elites and are thus expected to maintain a prestigious way of life. On the other hand, their regular salaries are relatively low, thus creating a discrepancy between social prestige and economic status. To reduce the status discrepancy, the officials tend to raise the economic status by getting money from illegal sources. Perhaps, what should be done is to cut down the social prestige of government officials, making them “civil servants” in the true sense of the term.

4. Discretion power provides opportunities for the officeholders to corrupt. Such was the case in the Ch’ing bureaucracy. Legal codes, especially those dealing with corruption, should therefore be made as specific as possible, and the administrative procedures should also be standardized and made known to the public. As Kuan and Wong have reported, the anti-corruption ordinance in Hong Kong has become increasingly specific, and the Government’s Independent Commission Against Corruption has been making attempts to examine and reform the administrative procedures in various government departments and public bodies. Such efforts are important and should be continued.

5. Overdependency of officials on their subordinates is conducive to corruption. The local and particularly the high-ranking officials should make efforts to keep themselves familiar with the local affairs under their jurisdiction and with the specific jobs performed by their subordinates. They should not lock themselves up in their offices. Instead, they should walk around, get the feelings, and if possible, get some direct experiences Moreover, the transfer of officials from one district to another, or from one service unit to another, should be minimized.

6. The moral integrity of officials, particularly the high-ranking officials, is important, but so is that of his subordinates. In many countries including Hong Kong, school education tends to emphasize technical knowledge while the mass media tend to emphasize entertainment. What is badly needed is the promotion of moral education. A technically competent person without moral sanctions can do more harm than good to society.

7. Both moral and structural approaches should be employed to combat corruption. The former stresses moral integrity of the bureaucrats, while the latter stresses structural refinement. “Good” rules need “good” people to carry out. Bad people would try hard to misuse the good rules, while good people can hardly resist the temptation of using the bad rules for personal gain.

The “lubricating function” of corruption is a myth. The data in this paper suggest that corruption threatens the legitimacy of the political regime and would, as a result, cause social unrest. Such a message should be conveyed to the public, as social stability is of vital concern not only to the government but also to the people. If the public are well aware of the ill-effects of corruption upon the social order, they would be more supportive to anti-corruption programs.

NoteIncludes bibliographical references
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