A Minnesota Corruption Council?

In Hong Kong, where a Western-style government and business culture is implanted in an Asian society,  an agency called the Independent Council Against Corruption is needed to enforce rules against bribery and other forms of corruption. Educating Hong Kong citizens about what is and isn’t acceptable business and government practice has been a large part of the ICAC’s role.

Does Minnesota now need an ICAC? For the second time in two days, a local Hmong leader has been named in a corruption investigation. The men named in both cases, it turns out, accompanied St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly on his trip to the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand last year. Kelly today called the leak of the investigation announced today "politically motivated," and it may turn out to be. But the cases point to an issue that journalists should be attuned to.

Corruption — the vast area that stretches all the way from harmless favors to dead-of-night payoffs — is epidemic in developing Asia. The Chinese government spends vast sums fighting corruption that often envelops entire city and regional governments. Many of the perpetrators are guilty, from their perspective, of doing no more than what has always been done in the conduct of the public business. Which is to render government service to whichever powerful party, public or private, pays you the most to do so. Likewise businessmen, from their view, merely pay the government figure who’s in charge of the service they need.

What could be more straightforward? Many times, loyalty to family, clan, and friends that stretches back generations is involved.

This is a tricky area to discuss as journalists, of course. Anyone who brings it up can easily be painted as racist or jingoist. In fact, whenever I write about this side of the immigration issue — namely the dangers of importing into this country many of the world’s ills — I get a flood of e-mail from anti-immigration groups I want nothing to do with. Yet bending over backward to be politically correct can also have negative consequences, for instance, that important things go undiscussed.

Corruption is a social illness that can spread globally as easily as drugs, weapons, gang warfare, and disease. The carriers of the disease may not even know they are carriers. And the plain fact is that along with the great many positive contributions that Asian immigrants bring to the United States — many of which help the U.S. stay strong and competitive in the world — the spread of corrupt government and business practices from Asia to America is a clear threat.

So to the extent possible, journalists should at least inquire about this angle in their coverage of Asian immigrant corruption cases. And hopefully, if they find this element present in the story, they should find ways to write about it.

It’s responsible to treat an Asian immigrant as an American citizen for whom their cultural ancestry is to a large degree irrelevant, especially in their accountability to U.S. laws. But at the level of the root causes of the problem, cultural ancestry is not irrelevant, especially when the Asian immigrant is an office holder or public servant like a policeman. And it does neither side any favors to gloss over that fact. Indeed it does both sides a disservice.

Asian refugees who serve in positions of public power serve at least two distinct constituencies — native American citizens on the one hand, and their foreign-born refugee communities as well. And the latter will exert pressure on them to perform their public duties in ways that possibly contradict their roles as U.S. public servants. It may have happened in these cases.

To the degree we as journalists can get to this level of the problem in our coverage, even if it means only a line or two per story, the more we’re serving all members of our multicultural society.  But it will take sensitivity and courage to do so.  (Published 2/8/2005)

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