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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.

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For example, the immigration official sees himself as helping to evade cumbersome regulations that it make it difficult for Chinese to acquire passports. His is a victimless crime, he says.

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"From the economist's point of view, this is more like a social and moral problem - not economic," says Hai Wen, an economist at Beijing University and a promoter of economic reform. The way to end such corruption is to reform the system, making it easier for businesses to thrive, he says. "Why do people need to pay a bribe? Because they need a resource and are willing to pay a certain price."

"In some people's view, because there is total control of resource allocation by the government, you have to pay a high price," Mr. Hai adds. "Those who are willing to pay high prices are those who need it," and that does not necessarily decrease an economy's efficiency.

Nonetheless, China's thinkers are focusing on how to keep corruption from spiraling out of control. The government has called for greater supervision over officials and an increased watchdog role for the state-controlled news media.

During a tour of Shenzhen, the economic hothouse city just north of Hong Kong, the Politburo member in charge of battling corruption called for regulatory changes to close loopholes exploited by corrupt officials. The problem of selling of land-use rights through back-door channels could be curbed through open bidding, Wei Jianxing said.

Other suggestions include raising officials' salaries. But that may not be enough, said an editorial in a progressive newspaper, Southern Weekend. "More important is to reduce official power over business so that officials will have fewer opportunities to sell their power," the paper said.

Aside from toughened law enforcement, the Communist Party has launched a campaign to re-instill Maoist principles in an effort to clean up its ranks. In the newspapers, on television, and on banners hung around the capital, old revolutionary heroes long consigned to the closet have been dusted off and held up as moral examples. A new television drama retells the story of a Russian model worker at a steel mill. Popular in the 1950s, the story still resonates with the older generation, but has little relevance to younger people. One newspaper responded by running a column on whether the steel-mill worker or Bill Gates is the better model for China.

A growing number of academics suggest that these measures fail to address the root causes of the problem. Several graduate students at the elite Beijing University planned to write theses explaining how the Communist Party needs to become more of a traditional political party and less an extra-governmental organ. But their proposals were shot down as too sensitive, said a Beijing University employee who knows the researchers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society