Top Chinese official executed for taking bribes

Government hopes to show it's getting tough on rampant graft

March 09, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- At a time of rampant corruption and widespread public disillusionment, the Chinese government tried to show it was getting tough on graft yesterday by putting to death the highest-ranking official yet executed in the country's 50-year Communist history.

Hu Changqing, former vice-governor of the central China province of Jiangxi, was executed after being found guilty of taking $657,000 in bribes and amassing $195,000 in property, the source of which he couldn't explain.

The official newspaper, the People's Daily, urged officials to learn from Hu's mistakes and resist the opportunities for corruption that have emerged since China began moving toward a market-oriented economy two decades ago.

Hu's execution "tells us that, in socialist China, there is no special citizen in the eyes of the law," the newspaper said in a commentary scheduled for publication today. "No one can escape the punishment of the law if he has broken the law, no matter how high his position or how powerful he is."

Hu's execution was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's largely rubber stamp parliament.

Tomorrow, the nation's top prosecutor, Han Zhubin, is to present his yearly report to the delegates.

In addition to his provincial duties, Hu served as deputy director of China's Administration of Religious Affairs from 1995 until last year.

His execution follows several embarrassing national corruption scandals.

In recent months, the central government sent hundreds of police to the southern port city of Xiamen and surrounding Fujian province to investigate a network of officials and businesses in China's biggest smuggling case ever.

The group stands accused of smuggling an estimated $10 billion worth of mobile communications equipment, oil, tobacco, cars and home appliances from Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Authorities have implicated more than 160 officials.

Earlier this year, the nation's auditor general announced that government employees had embezzled or misused up to $15 billion in 1999. Among the biggest targets was the controversial Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River. Officials stole nearly $600 million earmarked for resettling some of the 1.3 million residents forced to move because of rising water in the river, also called the Chang.

A recent crackdown on smuggling has had an impact in the area most affected, the South China coast. Around Hong Kong, customs tariff income for the first 11 months of last year was 80 percent higher than during the same time in 1998, according to mainland authorities.

But whether executing provincial officials will really change the reflexive graft that has come to envelop this country is -- at best -- questionable.

China's authoritarian system lacks the sort of checks and balances that democratic nations use to root out corruption.

Most Chinese newspapers don't investigate in their own back yards for fear of reprisals from local officials. And the Communist Party retains the authority to decide whether to prosecute high-ranking members before handing them over to the courts.

Critics say the party can cleanse itself only by reforming the political system -- the very thing the nation's Leninist leaders believe will hasten their demise.

"What the government should do is free public opinion and allow the society to supervise the government's behavior," says He Qinglian, an economist in Shenzhen, a southern boom town that borders Hong Kong. "Even the best surgeons can't operate on themselves."

Many Chinese take a cynical view of the recent crackdown. They say only those who run afoul of top leaders are punished, while the favored go free.

The Xiamen case and an earlier one in Beijing seem to bear that out.

Last year, Beijing's former mayor, Chen Xitong, became the highest party official to be prosecuted for corruption and was sentenced to 16 years. Lost on no one was the fact that Chen was also a political rival of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

When the smuggling case leaked out of Xiamen earlier this year, news reports initially implicated Jia Qinglin, who served as governor of Fujian while the operation was in high gear and was obvious to anyone who visited.

Jia, however, is an ally of Jiang and a member of the 21-member Politburo, the second-highest-ranking committee in the party. Soon after the story broke, government officials squelched reports that police were focusing on Jia.

As much as the Communist Party worries about corruption, recent scandals are unlikely to create political instability in the short term because graft often doesn't have a tangible impact on people's daily lives.

However, if the economy continues to cool and more people are thrown out of work, public resentment could grow. And as corruption cases continue to mount, they could provide ammunition for reformers and opportunists when struggles emerge at the top of the party.

In the future, "corruption will very likely be used as a weapon in a power game," said a social scientist in Beijing who requested anonymity.

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