China's corruption crackdown sifts out select targets

A wide-ranging trial and execution of a top official stop short of bona fide cleanup.

China's struggle against corruption reached new levels last week as the country executed one senior official and trials got under way in another major case.

On Thursday, Cheng Kejie, former vice chairman of the National People's Congress, was executed. Cheng was accused of amassing more than $5 million through corruption.

The People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said the case "shows that corrupt elements have nowhere to hide, [and] before the law, all citizens are equal." Yet academics, legal experts, and even some critics within the party are skeptical that the current anticorruption campaign has the power to cleanse the government.

"No matter how high-profile the case, no matter how serious the punishment, they won't be able to do anything about corruption until they begin to introduce institutional reforms," says Merle Goldman, a professor of contemporary Chinese history at Boston University.

China must establish "some kind of electoral accountability, freedom of the press, and an opposition party - reforms that would ensure a system of checks and balances ... the kind of reforms that we associate with democracy," says Dr. Goldman.

The Communist Party, though, is trying hard to prove that it can contain corruption without compromising its grasp on power. Although the president and other officials increasingly proclaim the merits of the rule of law, there is never any doubt that the party - along with the politics that justify it - comes first.

The anticorruption drive fits squarely in the mold of all centrally planned political campaigns: It makes liberal use of propaganda to rally support for its cause, pick its targets, and control the debate, thereby legitimizing party leadership with each proclaimed success.

Aside from the routine exposures of low-level corruption and the occasional toppling of a senior official, the most conspicuous aspects of the anticorruption drive are exhibitions in major cities detailing the ignominious downfalls of hundreds of corrupt cadres - and a new movie called "Life or Death Decision."

The film, which first appeared in Beijing in mid-August, and is now required viewing for all party members, tells the story of the upstanding mayor of a fictional city who unravels a web of corruption, only to find that it implicates his own mentor and benefactor and even his wife. He makes the right "decision" and sends them all to jail, though tellingly only with the support of an even more senior party official.

By most accounts the movie is a success in its own right. Theater owners say that ticket sales are better than they were for American blockbusters "The Matrix" and "Saving Private Ryan." As one Beijing government administrator said when leaving the theater, "That was really good! We got to sit down and be entertained and fight corruption at the same time!"

Few doubt that the Chinese leadership is serious about attacking corruption. As Tsao King Kwun, professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, puts it, "No political regime can tolerate that level of corruption, so they have to be serious."

But many observers suspect that the leadership is willing only to "punish those who need punishing, and protect those who need protecting," as the more liberal Hong Kong media have quoted senior mainland officials as saying in private.

A case in point are the trials that began this past Wednesday. They will mete out punishment in what is widely said to be the biggest corruption scandal since the founding of the People's Republic. Being held secretly in several cities in coastal Fujian Province, the trials illustrate limitations of the anticorruption campaign.

The Yuanhua Group, a conglomerate based in Xiamen, smuggled an estimated $9.5 billion worth of goods into the country with the help of political connections that are suspected to reach right up to Jia Qinglin, Politburo member and best man at President Jiang's wedding. Mr. Jia's wife was reportedly under investigation for being involved in the smuggling, but the couple seems to have escaped relatively unscathed. The mainland media, meanwhile, are prohibited from discussing the Xiamen case at all.

Chinese authorities cite recent reforms as evidence they are serious. In early 1999, new offices were established to combat smuggling and bring local administrations in line with national laws. New 1999 laws require that large government contracts be bid for openly. And there are laws in place designed to deter corruption by requiring all officials above the county level to disclose their personal incomes. But according to Professor Tsao, "it is clear that this law has not been pursued rigorously. Everything is still under the control of the local party secretary."

Nearly all observers agree that this is key. As Goldman says, the party's policies haven't worked because cadres "are reluctant to crack down on their allies and their friends."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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