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China cracks down on rank corruption

This week the most senior official to be caught in a scandal was arrested and another was executed.

By Shai OsterSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2000


He's a typical low-ranking, modestly paid government official, but he pockets an extra $200 every so often - a kickback for being part of a smuggling ring that sends unemployed Chinese to neighboring South Korea.

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"Chinese need jobs. South Korea needs workers," says the official, who requested anonymity. "It's a win-win situation."

Echoing a common sentiment, the immigration official typifies the attitude of many here toward corruption, a fixture of daily life. But with a string of high-profile crackdowns that is reaching ever higher into the echelons of power, China is now attempting to rein in illegal practices that are seen as a threat to the government and a barrier to economic progress.

Chinese economists estimate that in the 20 years since China started experimenting with capitalism, government officials have siphoned off $3.6 trillion in government funds and state assets. On Tuesday, Cheng Kejie, a deputy chairman of the national legislature, was expelled from the Communist Party and fired for accepting more than $4 million in bribes. In the past month, two other southern officials have been executed for their malfeasance, a sentence Mr. Cheng faces if convicted. And in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, hundreds of people have been implicated in a scandal that first surfaced last fall and is still being investigated.

While China's leadership is worried that the scandals are weakening its hold on power, Premier Zhu Rongji has also acknowledged the rising popular anger at the government's failure to stop the epidemic. "Bureaucracy, formalism, falsification, and exaggeration are rampant," Mr. Zhu said during a speech last month before the legislature, the National People's Congress. "Certain types of corruption and undesirable practices have not been brought under control."

China's leaders have reason to fear corruption. It helped topple the Ming dynasty in the 1600s and led to the abdication of the last emperor in 1912. Students in the 1989 pro-democracy protests also decried corruption.

But in many cases the graft is the result of a legal and regulatory system that encourages officials to exploit their positions, says economist He Qinglian, whose book "The Pitfalls of Modernization," was a bestseller. It says government officials have gotten rich by selling off state assets or placing relatives at the head of privatized, formerly state-owned businesses.

China's tight import and export controls have spawned enormous smuggling operations, many of which are protected by the Army or customs officials. Nearly all semiconductors in China are illegally imported to evade high tariffs, according to one US official. Cigarettes and fuel oil are also smuggled in large quantities to bypass high import duties. Chinese companies bribe officials to secure export licenses.

Yet some observers say that while corruption has moral and social costs, some of the activity may actually be helping the economy to grow under the constraints of lingering Communist controls. "Low levels of corruption can grease the wheels of business," says a Western diplomat. "The distortions in the system create opportunities for corruption."