China's anti-corruption drive busts model village leader in rare victory

August 31, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Another Chinese model leader has fallen from grace.

This time, the reversal of fortune is being cast as a victory by China's nascent legal system over the country's pervasive corruption -- a victory that neatly coincides with the latest national drive against rapidly spreading official profiteering and abuses of power.

It also represents a salvo from Beijing in what's been a losing battle against a proliferation of regional and local officials who ignore its dictates and rule their domains like feudal lords.

Yu Zuomin was the chief of Daqiuzhuang, a settlement about 70 miles southeast of Beijing known as China's "richest village." He has been a high-profile delegate to a national political advisory body and reportedly was a friend of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Daqiuzhuang's 4,000 residents gained fame for founding more than 250 collectively-owned factories and enterprises, employing more than 20,000 transient workers from elsewhere in China. Their annual per-capita profits exceed what most Chinese earn in a lifetime, and the village has been widely touted as a prime example of the virtues of Mr. Deng's economic reforms.

But last week Mr. Yu, 63, was sentenced to 20 years in jail, convicted with 18 other villagers in the beating death of a village farmhand. He specifically was found guilty of harboring the murderers and directing armed villagers to block police from entering Daqiuzhuang to investigate the murder.

When he was arrested in April, the Chinese media portrayed him as a small-town tyrant who became intoxicated by his own power. At the same time, some political observers -- noting his reputed friendship with Mr. Deng -- doubted he would ever be punished.

But Mr. Yu had the bad timing of coming to trial just as the Communist Party launched its latest nationwide crackdown on the corruption that has spread rapidly in China hand-in-hand with economic liberalization.

The anti-corruption drive, initiated by a high-level party meeting concluded last week, goes far beyond Mr. Yu's case -- to the question of the very survival of the party.

"Corruption such as graft and bribery is now worse than at any other period since New China was founded in 1949," a national judicial official, Liang Guoqing, proclaimed. "It has spread into the party, government administrations and every part of society, including politics, economy, ideology and culture."

With a get-rich-now mentality taking hold, officials at all levels have taken the opportunity to profiteer from their positions in innumerable ways.

Party, government and military officials are wining, dining and traveling at public expense; charging for previously free government services; turning government agencies into private businesses; playing in stock markets with public funds; taking money and gifts for their decisions and siphoning money into overseas accounts -- to just scratch the surface of the scams.

The endemic corruption has increased an already high level of public cynicism about the Communist Party's political legitimacy. Anti-corruption sentiment was a major factor in drawing workers into the student-initiated 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The party is well aware of its vulnerability on this score. Warned party chief Jiang Zemin in launching the campaign: "Corruption is the virus that has eroded the healthy body of the party and the state. If we lower our guard and let it run wild, our party will be ruined, the people's power will be lost and the great cause of socialist modernization will be forced off the track."

The crackdown likely was prompted by the widening circle of officials implicated this summer in a scandal in which more than $170 million was taken from more than 100,000 Chinese who invested in a sham company's bogus bonds -- in exchange for promised interest rates that ran as high as 43 percent.

Among 20 people detained so far, the highest official is believed to be a vice chairman of the State Science and Technology Commission. But there are persistent rumors that ailing Premier Li Peng's wife may have some ties to the racket.

There also are dark rumors of massively misused funds in China's banking system. China's central bank Friday denied as "totally groundless" a Hong Kong report that $28 billion is missing from the Chinese banking system and that Chinese bankers have fled the country with $10 billion of that money.

But an official report Saturday acknowledged that Chinesbanks have recalled more than $12 billion in unauthorized loans for speculative schemes as part of Vice Premier Zhu Rongji's campaign to restore order to the nation's financial system.

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