It's little things that count in China, like free color TVs

Liu Boping is now behind bars. But he was once considered the uncrowned king of the provincial city of Shijiazhuang. And he has recently been the subject of a series in the Worker's Daily.

According to the newspaper, he has left behind a group of about 50 very worried Communist Party and government officials, including a vice-governor of Hebei Province, of which Shijiazhuang is the capital.

Liu is a fascinating example of how an uneducated man who started life as a simple driver could worm his way into Communist Party ranks and then into a government office that controlled one-tenth of China's annual oil production of 100 million tons.

Hebei Province, south of Peking, is a mostly flat, grain-producing region, but it has several rich oil fields. The North China Oil Administration Bureau, which manages these fields, has an imposing office in Shijiazhuang. Liu was a deputy manager at the time of his arrest.

In 1974, when Liu was in his early 30s, he came to Hebei from Daqing in the northeast, China's largest oil field. He had joined the Communist Party during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). But he was a driver, a worker third-class according to the communist system of ranks.

Two years later, he got his chance when his superior was cold-shouldered by a bureau chief in the provincial administration because he had not learned the art of making connections. Liu offered his services and soon had most of the provincial administration eating out of his hand.

How did he do it? According to popular gossip, he had three weapons: propane gas tanks, job assignments, and electric appliances - that is, color television sets and tape recorders. With these he made himself so useful to his superiors that he was soon promoted to director of the manager's office and then to deputy manager. He was only the fifth of five deputy managers, but he was the one to see to get anything done.

A word of explanation is in order about propane gas tanks. In most Chinese cities, city gas is either unavailable or available only in very limited areas. Most people must use dirty, time-consuming coal briquettes for cooking. But for those who can beg, buy, or steal a small gas tank, there are outlets where the tank can be refilled periodically.

Working as he did for an oil organization, Liu could lay his hands on these tanks. After he supplied one to a high provincial official, Liu was asked for another because, said the official, he had a large family.

Liu obliged. After three important members of the province's party committee had received these tanks, an official suggested other members would be jealous. Liu expansively replied, ''Just give me a list,'' and sent tanks to every person on the list.

It was the same with job assignments. In China, it is next to impossible to change one's place of residence, particularly to move from the countryside to the city. But oil is a growing industry in China; oil fields have a generous quota of job assignments.

Liu used his position to get transfers for relatives of party officials. The daughter of a theater manager was recategorized from temporary to permanent worker and then assigned to the Shijiazhuang office. The uncle of another was hired as an oil-field worker although he was more than 50 years old. Altogether more than 300 people found backdoor employment through Liu. Finally, because the oil administration had an allocation of foreign currency, Liu was able to import color television sets and tape recorders, which he distributed to high officials.

All the time, of course, he was lining his own pockets, amassing more than 100,000 yuan (almost $50,000) in bribes, smuggling, embezzling. Liu was criticized frequently and severely for his high-handed manners and ostentatious living, but he was defended by superiors and friends, who found him far too useful a person to get rid of.

Eventually he was brought down by the persistent efforts of members of the province's discipline inspection committee, energized after a woman accountant who was not even a member of the Communist Party went to Peking, at her own expense, to complain formally to party headquarters.

The paper strongly suggests that the effort to get to the bottom of who was behind Liu and what officials remain to be punished continues. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage, the journal says, mentioning Genesis and the Bible.

What of the corrupt officials who sold their birthright - i.e., the authority entrusted to them by the people? Every cadre, the newspaper says, must face up to the question of what is the relationship between his birthright and the mess of pottage.

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