- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Say what you will about China’s state-run media — they are enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Dec. 2 Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-graft organization, published its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which scored China at 40 out of 100 points, and ranked it 80th out of the 177 countries and territories surveyed. Yet what caught the attention of China’s Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, was the country’s progress: Although China’s ranking remained unchanged from 2012, its 2013 grade has risen by a single point on a 100-point scale.
The Global Times gleefully covered the news in a widely reposted Dec. 4 article entitled "Transparency International: China’s Transparency Index Improves for Three Continuous Years." Transparency International has warned against comparisons with pre-2012 data, in part because the organization has changed its methodology. But this did not stop the Global Times from arguing China’s improved grade "shows that the international community continues to think more and more highly of China’s anti-corruption efforts." (Corruption remains endemic in China, and President Xi Jinping’s months-long effort to curtail it have thus far fallen short.)
Not all commenters were such positive thinkers. Some could not believe that China had earned even a paltry score of 40: One user of Weibo, China’s Twitter, suspected "grade inflation," while another argued that "China should be second-to-last, just ahead of North Korea." Concerns about the report’s reliability aside, many felt that China’s showing did not merit the praise served up by the Global Times. Whether the grade is "40 or 39," lamented one commenter, "You still have to retake that test." Prominent liberal paper Beijing News counseled caution to anyone lauding China’s progress: "Don’t start celebrating just because our score is up," the paper advised in a Weibo post. "We’re still a long ways away from actual ‘transparency.’"
The dueling interpretations of Transparency International’s findings show that even in China’s highly censored media sphere, counter-narratives to the Communist Party line persist. The Global Times‘ nationalist bent has already earned it the nickname "Global Turd" from netizens weary of the paper’s penchant for falsehoods. For example, in June 2012 it drew online mockery for arguing (unconvincingly) that China was already "a kind of democracy."
This time, efforts to spin China’s corruption problem led some readers to take refuge in dark humor. "That’s our strength," one Internet user wrote of China’s still-failing marks. "We have so much room to improve."