Clinton-like Charges Echo in Chinese Case

Ex-Beijing party boss whose woes are like those of US president faces court trial soon.

President Clinton has a curious "double" in China who shares many of the his legal and public-image woes.

He is disgraced Chinese leader Chen Xitong, and the parallels between him and Mr. Clinton are eerie.

Each had an aide commit suicide. Each had secrets exposed in thinly veiled "fictional" bestsellers. Each has investigators pursuing charges linked to adultery.

While "Primary Colors" sketched a damaging caricature of candidate Clinton, "The Wrath of Heaven" paints intimate details behind charges of moral and financial corruption swirling around Mr. Chen.

But Chen's saga has taken different turns that show China's possible new way of policing its top leaders.

The journalist who penned "The Wrath" was detained for questioning. The expos, the first to chronicle a senior leader's alleged decadence and abuse of power, was banned.

Beijing's media, unlike their American counterparts, have said little of the coming trial of Chen and a web of corruption that is believed to have stretched across the Chinese capital.

Until his detention nearly three years ago, Chen was one of China's most powerful leaders.

Chen served as a senior-ranking member of the country's ruling Politburo and party chief of Beijing.

Despite his fall from grace, a cloak of secrecy that protects the party's inner circle continues to shield Chen from being publicly scorned. Officials in Beijing refuse to disclose where Chen is being held, or provide more than a sketchy account of the charges against him. But China's top prosecutor said last week that Chen could soon face trial for embezzlement of public funds and dereliction of duty.

Legal figures throughout Chinese society are hailing Chen's pending prosecution as a sign that the law is being applied to virtually untouchable Communist leaders. "Just as the investigation of President Clinton shows that no one is above the law in the US, the prosecution of Chen Xitong signals that Chinese law is becoming fairer," says a law student at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.

Zhu Mingshan, vice president of China's Supreme Court, echoes that view. "Everyone is equal before the law," says Mr. Zhu in explaining Chen's case. "No matter how high your post or the nature of your position, if you break the law, you will be prosecuted."

In the past, the only senior party leaders subjected to public trials were those who waged and lost power struggles. When Mao Zedong's death triggered a battle for China's top post in 1976, his widow was arrested in a palace coup. She and her allies were later put on trial for crimes that included atrocities ordered by Mao himself. "Many party members believe Chen Xitong is only being prosecuted because he coveted [party chief] Jiang Zemin's post," says a Beijing lawyer with high-level government contacts.

"And, even then, Chen's web of party connections is likely to ensure that he will receive a relatively short jail term," he adds.

Chen was stripped of his posts in the spring of 1995, when a party investigation of graft in the Beijing city government began netting arrests and apparently caused one deputy to shoot himself.

"The Wrath of Heaven," which is still being sold in underground bookshops, describes a city that is run like a personal fiefdom by a party boss. Graft greases the political machinery, and bribes and kickbacks gain the keys to the city for connected officials and businessmen. The city's leader and his son reap huge, illicit profits acting as gatekeepers until a crime-buster appears and a deputy who is made the fall guy commits suicide.

Dozens of Chen's associates have already been jailed in the real-life scandal, and his son was given a 12-year sentence last summer.

Many Beijing residents, confronted with a virtual news blackout on Chen's odyssey through the same prisons and interrogation rooms he once controlled, seem to regard "The Wrath of Heaven" as a verbatim account of his offenses. But there is slight chance that the book will prejudice Chen's trial in Beijing, where he is deeply unpopular for his role in backing a military solution to pro-democracy protests here in 1989.

"During the public phase of the trial, Chen will be allowed to have a defense attorney, and his sentence will be read out by a panel of judges," says the Beijing lawyer.

"But there is no question that the verdict will be determined behind closed doors by the party's top leaders," he adds.

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