One day back in July, an old woman in the city of Bell, a community located in Los Angeles County, stumbled across a document listing off the salaries of the local mayor and other city officials while she was rummaging through the garbage. She was shocked to find that in this city whose per capita income stands at roughly one-half of the American average, the city manager was drawing a salary of US$787,637 (higher than the salary earned by President Obama). The police chief was earning US$457,000 (US$150,000 higher than that of the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department).
Stranger still, four City Council members, who had only limited part-time responsibilities, were drawing salaries of US$97,000 each. Generally, city officials in small communities like this, who need only attend occasional meetings and vote yeah and nay, are paid around US$400.
It goes without saying that America is a country where democratic institutions are highly developed. Local areas in the United States are self-governing, and in cities like Bell, the city manager and members of the city council are elected by local voters.
How could such a flagrant case of self-aggrandizement occur on a democratically elected city council?
The reason, as it turns out, is local sovereignty itself. The salaries and benefits of officials serving in city governments like this are determined by the city council. Bell is an area suffering from poverty, and local voters are not sufficiently clued in to local affairs. As a result, people were blind to the actions of the city council.
Though close to Los Angeles, Bell is a small community drawing little attention. The media too were derelict in their duties. As a result, city council members were able to use their voting rights to award themselves exorbitant salaries.
Cold indifference to politics is a common problem in developed nations. But such exploitation of indifference for personal gain is rare and surprising.
Under our present political system in China, we don’t see officials awarding themselves higher salaries. As citizens, however, we harbor all kinds of doubts about our government officials and their sources of income.
It’s impossible for us to know just how much “grey income” Chinese officials scoop up by exploiting their positions of power. Why don’t we know? Because so far we have no effective laws to ensure the transparency of the incomes of government officials. Official incomes are a terrain completely beyond our scrutiny.
So while Chinese leaders cannot award themselves higher salaries, they can employ all sorts of tactics shielded from the public to line their own pockets. Government officials with paltry incomes manage to afford palatial homes, drive fancy sedans, deck themselves out in elite brands and enjoy the very best liquor and tobacco.
In real terms, the benefits China’s officials accrue by virtue of their unsupervised power almost certainly dwarfs the salaries officials in the city of Bell decided to award themselves.
Government power tends to be self-aggrandizing by its very nature, a potentially monstrous Leviathan. It need only be handed the opportunity and it will enlarge itself and seek its own interests.
The matter of salaries was the first to be debated during the first meeting of China’s legislature, held after China’s Xinhai Revolution brought an end to the Qing Dynasty. What decision did the legislature make? Flying in the face of suspicion, these framers of Chinese democracy awarded themselves monthly salaries of 500 yuan. In those days, six yuan was sufficient to support a large family. This amount was preposterously high. But the public and the media were totally oblivious, and so the process of self aggrandizement began.
Supervision is the only way power can be turned away from self-interest. Power beyond the public gaze grows dangerous and avaricious. This is true in China, and it is equally true in America.
The revelation of the dirty secret in the city of Bell happened because an old woman scavenging in the garbage was mindful of her own rights. Once the media became involved, the problem was quickly resolved. The city officials involved were given 90 percent salary cuts. The city manager pledged not to accept payment for his work. All of them will serve out their terms in disgrace, and in all likelihood none will stand again as candidates.
The Bell case has jostled many Americans awake. They realize anew that if they don’t keep their eyes trained on their elected leaders, those leaders will see greedily to their own interests.
This article originally appeared in Chinese at Shanghai Morning Post.