March 5, 2004
Beijing: They’ve promised robust economic reform, a better future for the masses and honest, upright government. But the latest generation of Chinese leaders keeps colliding with a problem that won’t go away: People simply don’t trust them.
In an era when even the ruling Communist Party worries about polls, the party’s own numbers depict a Chinese public unsatisfied with efforts to stop corruption in government and the growing private sector – despite leaders’ repeated promises to eradicate the problem.
Bribe-taking and embezzlement are widespread throughout China, especially in bidding for construction projects in coastal boomtowns and in other scams that piggyback on the nation’s surging growth, to judge from reports in government media.
In recent weeks, a provincial vice governor was sentenced to death for bribery, a crime boss at the center of a corruption investigation was executed, and the eastern city of Nanjing resorted to paying its police not to be corrupt – with a $24,000 bonus upon retirement.
Even the president of a university founded by Mao Zedong to train communist revolutionaries was convicted in January of taking $70,000 in gifts, mostly from construction companies bidding to build dormitories.
Corruption “erodes public confidence in the government and poisons its relationship with the people,” the official newspaper China Daily said in an editorial a few weeks ago.
It said public confidence in anti-corruption efforts stood at just 52 percent of 12,000 Chinese polled last year. That is up from 33 percent in 1996, but still a stunning admission in a country where the party controls the media and enjoys absolute rule.
Hu Jintao, who became Communist Party chief in 2002 and president last year, has portrayed himself as a man of the people and vowed early this year to get tough on graft, announcing a new effort to beef up internal party discipline.
“For every case of corruption we find, we will investigate and deal with it,” Hu said.
The previous leadership, under Jiang Zemin, promoted fast economic growth at all costs. The new ruling team has sought to narrow the rich-poor divide and improve lives. Popularity matters to these leaders, and fighting corruption could help them win over the average Chinese.
Corruption has weakened support for regimes throughout China’s four millenniums of recorded history – including, in the last century alone, the country’s final emperor and the Nationalist government defeated by the communists.
The Communist Party “can’t remain idle. They have to do something about corruption because the degree and the scope of corruption has increased tremendously over the last decade,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
But, he added, “Corruption is so widespread that they would have to declare some kind of amnesty and set new rules, saying that now, from day one, here are the rules of the game and we’ll forget about what you did before.”
While there were certainly abuses of power during the Mao era, they didn’t typically involve money because there was less of it.
China’s rapid shift from a planned economy to a more capitalist system since Mao’s death means the rules were made up along the way, and what is illegal isn’t always clear. The result: Some local leaders decide for themselves, then pocket the gains.
Wang Xuebing, the former general manager at the New York branch of Bank of China, was sentenced to 12 years for taking bribes worth $139,000. He oversaw the branch between 1988 and 1993, when that office made improper loans that cost the bank $34 million.
Dozens of officials and executives in the coastal province of Fujian have been imprisoned or executed for accepting bribes from a company that smuggled billions of dollars worth of oil, cars and other goods.
The public’s inability to challenge official China is a key hurdle to any corruption fight, said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. The news media and local legislatures must be allowed to speak out, he said.
“In the longer term, of course, you need the rule of law,” Cheng said.
Government media periodically herald high-profile crackdowns, such as the recent death sentence for a former vice governor in the southeastern province of Anhui.
Wang Huaizhong took bribes totaling $620,000 while working in Anhui from 1994 to 2001 – and also had $580,000 in income for which he could not account, the government said. He also bribed officials to block investigations.
Such cases can enhance the prestige of China’s leaders and ensure stability, said Ji Jinduo, a professor at the China Youth College for Political Science in Beijing.
“Anti-corruption efforts are not aimed at certain individuals but at the political system,” he said.
Still, Ji added, he is not optimistic about the future. “China’s present corruption situation isn’t something to feel hopeful about,” he said.