March 11, 2004
An important corruption case has been brewing in China since 1995 and is now finally coming to light. It was in April 1995 that we first heard of Chen Xitong, the former Politburo member, Beijing Party Secretary and Mayor of Beijing. At that time, Chen was forced to resign his rank and privileges and was detained pending further investigation of corruption. Beijing Vice Mayor Wang Baosen committed suicide rather than, apparently, admitting his association in the same corruption case. The illegal gains of these two officials from corruption were estimated at 20 million yuan ($2.2 million). So, the question that needs to be answered is, why has this case finally been brought forth after such a long time?
This scandal is the first to involve senior party officials and close attention is being paid to how the party will handle the investigation. How far does the corruption reach? How are the perpetrators to be tried without casting a shadow of suspicion on their powerful superiors? Suspicions of party-based corruption have been rampant for some time in the world’s media and political circles, and Jiang Zemin, former Party Chairman, claimed that corruption would destroy both the party and the country.
Jiang’s claims now seem fulfilled. Under the rule of his dictatorship, at every level of party officialdom, the routine disregard for established laws, underhanded competition for power and illegal acquisition of public property for private use increased, contributing greatly to this cancer in Chinese society.
But really, how determined is Jiang Zemin to enforce anti-corruption measures within the senior party ranks and among governing officials? A close look at the results of Chen Xitong’s case calls Jiang’s resolve into question.
Chen’s case was repeatedly delayed for three years. Yet last month, the Beijing Higher People’s Court suddenly sentenced him to 16 years imprisonment on charges of corruption and dereliction of duty. According to the documents of the case, during Chen’s twelve-year term as mayor of Beijing, he accepted 22 gifts worth more than 100,000 yuan. The gifts included watches, pens and cameras and were mainly from government business connections in Hong Kong. Such practices are definitely not uncommon. Chen is unlikely to be the only recipient of such favors. And why was his sentence so light? A county official or bureau chief convicted of this level of corruption would almost certainly receive the death penalty.
Rumor has it that over 70 people, including the children of former Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Security Director Li Peng, were involved with Chen in a major corruption scandal that has yet to be exposed. This is no small matter and sure to cause a stir. If the truth of this scandal got out and the 1.2 million starving, unpaid workers, the ten million laid-off workers or the 105 million landless and homeless farmers all rose up in protest, perhaps the country could be saved but the party would almost certainly perish.
To cover up the true situation and avert a major crisis, Chen was accused of the manufactured crime of accepting bribes – one that was suitably evil enough, but didn’t reveal the true extent of the corruption. He received his sentence and his gifts were confiscated. This massaging of reality to cover up the real decay in the system is truly despicable. The charge of dereliction of duty stems from his exceeding his allowable spending limits with regards to the construction and operation of two luxurious mansions. In fact, such spending is allowable for the construction of buildings for use by party members and merely serves as another trumped-up charge.
In actual fact, the whole charade is another chapter in the power struggle between Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai backers and those of Chen Xitong in Beijing who are supported by Li Peng. Jiang Zemin inherited the mantle of General Secretary after the democracy movement was crushed on June 4, 1989, much to the dismay of Li Peng and Chen Xitong, who had not only displayed long-standing loyalty to Deng Xiaoping but who had also contributed greatly to the overthrow of the democracy activists. Before Zhao Zhiyang resigned in the midst of the uprising, Li thought himself a sure bet for the position of General Secretary and Chen too felt that the Premiership was his. Li and Chen resisted Jiang’s elevation despite Deng’s warning against this. A maligned Chen sent investigators out to uncover any dirty dealings to which Jiang may have been party during his term as mayor of Shanghai and party secretary.
When Deng’s health deteriorated in 1995, Jiang began to feel insecure. He worried that with Deng Xiaoping gone, he would again have to face the Beijing bloc in a power struggle. So, he made the first move and charged Chen with corruption. Chen, aware of the true situation, fearlessly demanded an open trial to publicly expose the supposed 70 conspirators. All of them would have to testify and in turn the truth would be out, and all, including Jiang, would face punishment.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations reduced Chen’s sentence. And, his place of “imprisonment” remains a matter of contention (it is unlikely that he would have faced the regular prison system). Within the space of one and a half years, Chen admitted to his crime and repented. He is now on “medical parole.”
No one is really interested in getting to the heart of the matter. The truth is that after the death of Deng and the end of Chen’s aspirations, Jiang has finally cemented his power. The Shanghai bloc has won the upper hand over the Beijing bloc. The reality of battling corruption is inextricably entwined in the struggle for power in the upper echelons. All is not what it seems.