t is hard to overstate the degree to which China has been transformed in recent decades. Between 1959 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in the Great Famine. Today, China boasts the world’s second-largest economy. The country has virtually eliminated severe poverty among its citizens, a burgeoning middle class thrives in ever-expanding cities, and hundreds of Chinese citizens have become billionaires. Human history offers no other socioeconomic shift of equivalent magnitude.
Yet development has not come without costs. All boats have not risen at the same rate, and inequality has increased so much that China—which for decades was shaped by Mao’s enforced egalitarianism—now ranks alongside such long-lasting bastions of wealth disparity as Brazil and the United States. One factor driving this extreme inequality is the corruption that has seeped into every aspect of Chinese society. In his latest book, the political scientist Minxin Pei vividly demonstrates how corruption in China is not merely a governance challenge: it is a fact of life. Corruption permeates business, politics, and even personal relationships to a startling degree. To Pei, China represents not so much an economic miracle as the triumph of guanxi, the Chinese term for the connections that fuel cronyism and self-dealing. It is a damning portrait, in which China resembles the United States during the Gilded Age, complete with robber barons, crime bosses, and dirty politicians—and with all the excesses intensified by authoritarian one-party rule.
Inequality has increased so much that China now ranks alongside such bastions of wealth disparity as Brazil and the United States.
Pei deems this state of affairs unsustainable and believes that it signals the not-so-distant demise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the regime it has built. Proponents of liberalization and democratization in China might hope that conclusion would support an optimistic vision of the country’s future. They will be disappointed by Pei’s book. Corruption has become so entrenched in Chinese society, Pei believes, that “genuine market-oriented economy is fast dis-integrating.