Peking takes aim at rampant corruption in high places. `Decadent practices' slow reform, leaders say

Chinese leaders are urging citizens to expose official corruption that has sullied the Communist Party's image and disrupted economic reform. Thousands of reports of graft, bribery, embezzlement, smuggling, and blackmail are flooding in to more than 350 ``corruption report centers'' opened nationwide, according to China's state-run press. In Peking, operators manning a 24-hour ``corruption hot line,'' set up this month by the year-old Ministry of Supervision, are fielding nearly 50 reports of official misdeeds a day.

The new anticorruption strategy signals Peking's growing conviction that public ``supervision'' is needed to check the avarice rife in the party, government, and Army.

``The decadent practices of some party and government organs have developed so quickly and with such tremendous force that if we fail to solve them conscientiously, it will be disastrous in a few years' time,'' Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang warned earlier this month.

``It is imperative ... to quickly develop a supervisory mechanism. Otherwise, it will be difficult to carry out the reform,'' Mr. Zhao said. (Market-oriented reforms were launched in 1978 in an effort to spur economic growth.)

The strategy is also designed to vent mounting popular grievances over the nation's tainted officialdom, which Peking admits is damaging the reputation of the 47 million-member ruling party. Most Chinese view corruption as China's No. 1 problem, ranking it above double-digit inflation as a source of discontent, according to a government survey released this summer.

Despite clear popular enthusiasm for Peking's latest anticorruption campaign, its success appears limited by the very lack of accountability that has fostered widespread official abuses in China. The party has given the Chinese public limited power to criticize officials, but not to punish them.

Corruption is worse today than at any time since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, when Mao Tse-tung's Red Army defeated the graft-ridden regime of nationalist General Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese officials say privately.

This month, the party announced that 109,000 corrupt members were expelled or asked to quit in 1987 in the largest such housecleaning of recent years. But of those ousted, only 30 held posts above the county level.

Corruption is an ancient problem in China, encouraged by chronic shortages, a legal system subordinate to a single ruler, and the tightly knit clan structure of traditional society.

Chinese have always relied heavily on guanxi, or connections, to accomplish the most mundane tasks. Guanxi derives from a network of family and friends, and is enhanced by mutual favors and gift giving. Guanxi can open the hou men, or back door, through which the adept Chinese can obtain virtually anything - from imported consumer goods to a passport for travel abroad or admission to an elite school.

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when Maoist egalitarianism was at a peak, the use of guanxi remained common. But the climate was less favorable to a rampant rise in graft: Almost everyone was poor, conspicuous consumption was politically taboo, and China's Soviet-style central planning system offered few channels for an individual to amass illicit wealth.

But Mao's dogmatic puritanism began to give way in the 1980s, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms that have partially dismantled the nation's central planning system and expanded the role of market forces.

The new, mixed economic system that has emerged has ``created a major hotbed for corruption within the party,'' wrote Luo Haigang, an expert on party malpractices, in the People's Daily newspaper in June.

For example, greedy officials are thriving on China's dual pricing system, whereby many goods have both fixed state prices and fluctuating market prices. The officials use their influence to hoard cheap, state-priced raw materials and then illegally resell them on the market for huge profits.

Such profiteering fuels inflation and deprives China's backward industrial enterprises of badly needed investment funds. ``We call it the gray market,'' to borrow a term from the Soviet Union, a Chinese source said. ``Those officials love shortages, and they don't want to see the shortages disappear.''

Moreover, corruption now pays more than ever before. Officials are increasingly tempted by bribes from entrepreneurs to make decisions that would line their pockets instead of serving the public interest. Bribes of 10,000 yuan ($2,700) are common. The state-run press has reported cases involving the embezzlement of nearly $100,000 - an astronomical sum in a nation where city dwellers earn only $250 a year on average.

China's new breed of graft is becoming more impersonal and systematic, as low-paid bureaucrats eager to profit from the nation's growing wealth exploit irrationalities in the hybrid, socialist-market economy.

``Corruption is in fact the offspring of a transitional society,'' wrote Mr. Luo.

Until recently, Chinese leaders publicized corruption scandals only occasionally to set an example, or ``to kill the chicken to frighten the monkey,'' as the popular saying goes. For the majority of cases, the party, Army, and government preferred to punish violations of discipline internally - slapping the hands of miscreant cadres behind closed doors.

``The greatest shortcoming in our understanding of inner party corruption at present is that we still remain at the level of sentimental criticism and moral condemnation,'' the People's Daily stated in a pointed article on how China has failed to bring corruption under control.

The party's enlistment of the public in its latest anticorruption drive signals a recognition that new deterrents are needed in today's climate of unbridled greed.

Nevertheless, the force of citizens' accusations remains blunted, since China lacks an independent judicial body able to guarantee that offenders are brought to justice.

The official New China News Agency appeared to acknowledge this in an article last month.

``The fundamental solution to the corruption problem lies in ... the reform of the country's political system,'' the agency said.

Chinese leaders Deng and Zhao admit that China cannot hope to eradicate the current ``unhealthy tendencies'' completely.

Public supervision ``will scare some cadres for a while, but then they will go back to their old ways,'' said a Chinese official, who requested anonymity.

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