Delegates at China's National People's Congress meeting in March 2012. Photo: Getty
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China’s billionaire politicians quadruple their wealth

Despite their low official government salaries, at this week’s National People’s Congress annual meeting, there will be 86 renminbi billionaires and China’s richest politicians have quadrupled their wealth in the past eight years. But is there a right level to set politicians’ pay?

On paper, Chinese politicians are pretty hard up compared to their US counterparts: China’s president, Xi Jinping, earns $19,000, compared to Barack Obama’s $400,000 salary, according to the International Business Times. And yet, while most Chinese politicians are at pains to hide their real incomes, the Financial Times reported that this week’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, will include 86 renminbi billionaires (equivalent to being worth over £97,725). According to the FT’s calculations, the country’s wealthiest politicians saw their wealth quadruple over the past eight years, while the richest 1000 people in the country saw their wealth triple – suggesting that most ordinary people in China are right that the best way to get rich is via political connections. The Chinese government’s high-profile anti-graft campaign doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

In 2012, it was estimated that the richest 70 members of China’s NPC have a larger combined wealth ($89.8bn in 2011) than that of all 535 members of the US congress, the president and his Cabinet and the nine Supreme Court judges. US politicians are not exactly poor, and according to World Bank estimates GDP per capita in the US is $51,749 compared to $6,091 in China. And, on paper at least, China’s billionaire politicians are communist officials. 

This raises some interesting questions about how much politicians ought to be paid. The most important defence against corruption is strong and well-enforced anti-graft laws combined with a much harder-to-define shift in social norms: in too many countries public officials believe themselves entitled to bribes and sweeteners and when corruption is pervasive, it becomes normal.

But there is an argument to be made that if you pay officials too little – and $19,000 to head up a country of over a billion is probably too little – this only encourages them to seek extra incomes elsewhere.

Some argue that high civil servant and politician salaries also promotes professionalism – Singapore is often held up as an example of a country that has managed to attract the brightest talent into government by offering salaries that compete with the top private-sector jobs. The counter-argument is that you want to attract people into politics who aren’t especially motivated by money.

The Economist published interesting data comparing MPs salaries to GDP per capita across various countries. Nigeria comes up top, because MPs are paid over 116 times more than the country’s per capita GDP – suggesting that high official income alone isn’t a strong disincentive against corruption. Kenya and Ghana are next on the list, with a ratio of 76 and 30 respectively. In Britain, politicians are paid around 2.7 times GDP per capita, while in the US it’s almost quadruple.

But, if Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian officials were paid, say just triple per capita GDP, they’d be earning $4,655, $2,829 and $4,815 respectively. Should we also consider levelling the playing field so that officials of low-income countries aren't the paupers at the tables of international summits?

Setting the right level for official government salaries is a complex issue, but China is clearly getting it very wrong indeed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt