Calling On The God Of Law And Order

November 18, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

HEFEI CHINA — HEFEI, China -- If executives of a Maryland company had stopped by Lord Bao's temple last week, they might have had more luck with a joint venture that collapsed here less than a day after it was announced.

The 11th-century judge-turned-god receives about 250 visitors a day at his temple, many of them praying for help in their struggles against injustice and corruption.

Judging from the experience that Multimax of Maryland had here, it's no wonder they're coming.

The Landover company thought it had a deal to start up a computermanufacturing operation in partnership with a Chinese company.

Soon after the signing, however, Multimax's Chinese partner demanded guaranteed profits and complete control over the joint venture.

Although the demands were illegal under Chinese law, Multimax gave up on the project because it believed that China's current legal system is too malleable to uphold the law.

Multimax's case is just one example of the battle being waged in this central Chinese city -- and indeed all of China -- against lawlessness, corruption and capricious officials who make ordinary people's lives miserable.

With no one to turn to for recourse, dozens of Chinese come here each day to light incense and pray to Lord Bao, the Sung dynasty judge with a reputation for incorruptibility and the ability to right almost any wrong.

Long a popular figure in Chinese culture -- he is found in many Beijing Opera works and in folk tales -- Lord Bao is now not only a god but also a TV star.

A series produced by Taiwan's Chinese Television Service has had long runs in Hong Kong and here in the People's Republic of China, where viewers find that sort of honesty and justice lacking in their everyday lives.

During a recent episode, a promising young scholar is kidnapped by a ruthless local tyrant who has a grudge against the young man's father. The scholar's wife appeals to Lord Bao, who uses his prestige, wisdom and his sidekicks' kung fu skills to win the man's release.

$20 bribe demanded

One visitor to the temple recently came to light incense in hopes that a surgeon would drop a demand for a $20 bribe to operate on a relative.

"Lord Bao to me is everything we need today in China. He's really an honest official who can solve problems," said Gu Rong, a 68-year-old former office clerk who came to offer his respects at the temple. "He's not just a lot of hot air."

The hot air comes in the form of an endless stream of CommunistParty propaganda claiming that more and more officials are being arrested for corruption.

Last year, for example, 300,000 officials in Anhui province, or one-fifth of the total provincial civil service, were investigated for misusing public money, helping to make this central Chinese province symbolic of China's corruption problem.

Yet a year later, massive propaganda signs around the provincial capital of Hefei still exhort people to "Observe and Implement the Auditing Law!" Last month, the Communist Party launched an "intensified struggle" against corruption -- all signs that the problem continues.

Meanwhile, authorities report 20,000 corruption cases for the first half of 1994, an 81 percent rise over the same period a year earlier.

Translated into everyday life, the figures mean that opening a business can require endless banquetting of the relevant officials and some greased palms, while finding a bigger apartment depends on carefully cultivating connections with the right officials.

The problem is so severe that it has become a chief hindrance to doing business in China.

A recent survey by a Hong Kong consulting firm, for example, showed that China is rated as the most corrupt place to do business in Asia, nudging out Indonesia and far ahead of the countries it hopes to emulate, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Today's laissez-faire morals go beyond broken business deals like the one Multimax experienced. They have even had an impact on the temple itself.

Built in the 12th century, Lord Bao's temple was razed in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution, the decade of government-organized destruction of culture, religion and education.

As the party struggled to regain legitimacy after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it allowed capitalist-style economic reforms and rebuilt many cultural monuments, including Lord Bao's shrine.

Lots of work for Bao

"If Lord Bao came back," said a visitor from Hong Kong, "he'd find so much work to do, starting here."

A nearby youth center -- meant to keep young people out of trouble by providing them with sports and study facilities -- turned into a karaoke bar.

A few more steps would show a library partially converted into a money-making hostel.

The solution to corruption can only come if further economic reforms are pursued, said Hu Angang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Until the state relinquishes control over private property -- giving it authority to approve or deny virtually any business deal -- cadres will be tempted to hold up deals until they get their slice or to turn public facilities, like the youth center and library, into private businesses.

"By the turn of the century, China could be a major player in the world's economy," Mr. Hu said. "First, though, it has to fight corruption by reforming the government's monopoly of the economy."

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