China's anti-graft campaign tries to wipe out government corruption . . .but ordinary citizens remain skeptical, seeking the nearest hand to grease

August 04, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- As the party chief of a huge iron and steel company, Guan HDeng commanded 80,000 workers. Before investigators finally caught up with him, he also enjoyed two mistresses and a stash of several hundred thousand dollars.

As a general manager for one of China's largest overseas construction companies, Liu Guoxiu lived a life of wine, women and song in Thailand. Before he was arrested, he filed six false expense reports, obtaining more than $250,000.

As chief cashier of a branch of the Chinese People's Construction Bank in Beijing, Li HD knew how to get money to invest in his private businesses. Before the juggled books were discovered, he had diverted more than $100,000.

The three officials, all of whom were sentenced to death last month for bribe-taking or embezzlement, are only the latest of the cadres to have been brought down in an anti-corruption drive.

The 2-year-old campaign appears to have taken on a larger political importance in the last few months.

There have many such anti-graft campaigns in China before, but internal corruption is now officially perceived, along with capitalist-inspired "peaceful evolution" and Western "spiritual pollution," as a major threat to Chinese communism.

In his speech on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last month, the party chief, Jiang Zemin, expressed confidence that China could withstand the onslaught of "bourgeois liberalization" from foreign elements intent on weakening socialism. But China's leadership apparently considers internal decay a much more resistant enemy.

Party cadres, the party boss said, "have abused their power for personal gain, accepted bribes and become corrupt. . . . If these decadent phenomena are allowed to continue, the party will be doomed to self-destruction."

This anti-corruption drive was much trumpeted by China's official media immediately after the 1989 massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators here. Pervasive corruption was a major issue in the protests, an issue that drew widespread support.

So hundreds of thousands of anti-graft inspectors were set loose.

Hardly a week has gone by without new revelations about the illegal activities of Communist Party, government or state company officials.

In just the last year, the campaign has bagged China's minister of communications for abuse of power, its vice minister of railways for bribe-taking and six senior trade officials for illegal gold and foreign currency dealings involving more than $18 million.

On a lower level, there have been reports that tens of thousands of party officials have been punished for misusing public funds ,, to build private houses or pay their children's school tuition.

But the crackdown on under-the-table dealings appears to have touched only a small part of day-to-day corruption in China -- involved in having a telephone installed or getting an apartment or buying a railroad carload of steel. "Going through the back door," the Chinese frequently call it.

"Communism can never be achieved in China because communism depends on an honest bureaucracy, and there's just so much corruption here," said a university professor and minor official from Henan province.

A 30-year-old teacher added, "The current corruption campaign is only thunder, no rain."

Asked about the recent death sentence imposed on the party official at the iron and steel company, a Beijing taxi driver shrugged and laughed, "He must not have had a back door. He must not have been related to any high leaders, else he would have gone free."

According to a recent Asian Wall Street Journal article, a 1988 state poll of party cadres showed that 63 percent acknowledged having been involved in corrupt practices.

So graduating university students often bestow friendly gifts on the administrators who determine their job assignments. Farmers frequently pay more than state-mandated prices for fertilizer because of profiteering by local officials. Power companies sometimes demand new cars from factories as the off-the-books price of maintaining industrial power lines.

And many Chinese companies establish Hong Kong branches solely as conduits for parking valuable foreign exchange outside of China.

In part, corruption in China stems from the traditional reliance on personal relationships rather than laws or contracts. Nepotism is rife.

New opportunities for corruption have also cropped up with the rapid development of China's economy.

These opportunities particularly stem from persistent shortages of industrial supplies, power and transportation and from China's partial economic reforms, which created a wide margin for profiteering between the economy's state-controlled sector and its market-oriented portion.

The fertile ground for graft provided by the deep involvement of virtually every Chinese government agency in profit-oriented pursuits is often far removed from the agency's primary function -- the most glaring example being the People's Liberation Army, which owns Beijing's most luxurious tourist hotel, imports cars and runs thousands of civilian-goods factories.

Even when carrying out lawful duties, China's government departments are so riddled with abuses of power that a national conference had to be called recently to discuss the problem of "the three wantons:" wanton collection of fees, wanton fines and wanton allocation of funds.

In the face of ingrained corruption, the average Chinese citizen can do little but look for the nearest back door, the nearest palm to grease.

"What else can we do?" sighed a 26-year-old female entrepreneur. "We have no power, no money and no standing."

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