China in quandry to fight corruption

Associated Press (AP)
November 13, 2002

Once a provincial Communist Party boss, Jia is linked in the public mind to a multibillion-dollar smuggling case. Other officials were executed. But Jia is an ally of President Jiang Zemin, who is due to retire and wants friends in power.

So instead of facing a possibly career-ending investigation, Jia is believed to be in line at the party congress this week for promotion to a leadership post – maybe even on the ruling Standing Committee.

Jiang admits China suffers from chronic bribery and other abuses. He warned congress delegates last week that the party is risking “self-destruction” if it doesn’t heed public anger.

But observers say corruption will flourish while the party refuses to open up a political system built on personal ties that lets people with the right friends escape punishment.

“They can’t address the most important problem, which is the all-powerful nature of the Communist Party,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong-based French Center for Studies on Contemporary China.

An antigraft campaign begun in the late 1990s in response to public rage has only reinforced the image of favoritism. Thousands of officials have been snared and some executed, but few with high-level connections.

“The whole Politburo would be behind bars if they were to seriously investigate corruption,” said Bruce Gilley, co-author of “China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files.”

The party that came to power in part by criticizing the corruption of the former Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fiercely guards its monopoly on power, imprisoning activists who call for democratic elections.

And in a country where most people live on less than $700 a year, the cost of such resistance to reform is huge – in lost economic growth, the added expense of bribes for businesses and stolen government money that would have paid for roads and public services.

Three prominent Chinese economists, writing in October in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, said the total could be as much as 14.9 percent of China’s economic output, or $180 billion a year.

The party is making fitful efforts to appear more evenhanded.

On Monday, state media quoted Wei Jianxing, chief of the party’s internal discipline apparatus, as warning that corruption will be dealt with severely. “Any corrupt member, either in high or low position, is set to meet with severe punishment once his misconduct is exposed,” Wei said.

A prominent Chinese banker was stripped of party membership last week and handed over to prosecutors to face charges over wrongdoing that cost a state bank $335 million.

Still, at upper levels, Chinese leaders regard corruption charges as just another political weapon, Gilley said.

“The decision whether to press a corruption case is entirely arbitrary and depends on whether the senior leaders want to end this person’s career,” he said.

Gilley and his co-author, Andrew J. Nathan, based their book on the work of a Chinese author who they say had access to personnel files on party leaders – including Vice President Hu Jintao, who is expected to succeed Jiang as party leader and president.

There are no graft accusations against Hu and others expected to be named this week to the Standing Committee, Gilley said.

But that doesn’t mean they’re clean. Instead, “allegations have been ruthlessly erased from official memory because there was already a decision that these people were going to be promoted,” he said.

Such political strategy is believed to have saved Jia.

He was party secretary of Fujian province, a manufacturing and trading center in the southeast, when investigators began to

look into what exploded in 2000 into China’s biggest corruption case of the communist era.

Dozens of police and customs officials were arrested on charges of helping a company that smuggled cars, cigarettes and other goods worth billions of dollars.

Jia’s wife was a provincial customs official, and investigators reportedly believed that he had to know about the scheme, or else he was guilty of incompetence. But by the time investigators moved in, Jiang had swept Jia out of harm’s way, making him Beijing’s local party leader and vetoing further questions, according to Gilley and others.

“He’s been protected by Jiang Zemin from the very beginning,” Cabestan said. “They’re giving the wrong signal to the Chinese public if they promote Jia Qinglin.”

Categories: Asia, China, Corruption, Odious Debts

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