China rolls out anti-corruption campaign

Critics say leaders aim to remove rivals, not combat sleaze

February 09, 2007|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NANJING, CHINA -- China went on a public relations offensive this week aimed at convincing the world it is serious about fighting corruption.

During a carefully controlled trip marked by long, statistics-laden speeches and limited opportunities for questions, foreign and local journalists were led through a series of provincial and local offices in Jiangsu province on China's prosperous east coast. The central message: We're a clean, green, corruption-fighting (single-party) machine.

"We have dynamic, open government," Zhou Kezhi, Jiangsu's vice governor, told the journalists from a stage bedecked with potted ferns and bougainvillea plants. "Let power be exercised in a sunny environment."

For anyone missing the plot, a giant red banner overhead read "Briefing on Building an Open Government, Combating Corruption and Advocating Clean Politics in Jiangsu Province."

China's political establishment has been rattled by a series of high-level corruption scandals in Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin in recent months. Many of those implicated were relatively high on the Communist Party food chain, including Shanghai party secretary and Politburo member Chen Liangyu. Chen is accused of helping divert over $400 million in government-held pension funds into risky property and toll-road projects.

While the Communist Party says the crackdown proves how serious it is about fighting the problem, which it has called a "cancer" threatening its very existence, some analysts say the campaign is aimed more at removing rivals than attacking sleaze at its roots.

The measures Zhou cited in his province's fight against the dark side included brochures, suggestion boxes, administrative flowcharts, tighter rules for selecting cadres and more open government, all in the interest of narrowing the gap between the party and the people.

Surveys show that 70 percent of Jiangsu citizens are satisfied with the anti-corruption efforts, he added, an 18 percent jump over three years ago. But while the government says that 7,500 officials were disciplined last year, this represents a tiny fraction of the province's 4.1 million party members.

Journalists on the three-day trip organized by the State Council, China's Cabinet, also were invited to visit the Zhangjiagang Public Bidding and Procurement Transaction Center and watch open government in action. The center is reportedly a national model for handling government contracts.

Bidders and judges snapped to attention as the 20 reporters filed into the room, suggesting the choice of this particular venue was not an accident. Signs overhead for the benefit of the television cameras identified it as an open bidding conference for dental machines needed at Hospital No. 1.

A clerk read out the bidding rules, including a call to keep quiet and "remain fair and just." With a dramatic flourish, he twirled each of the five sealed envelopes aloft to the click of the cameras. Each bid was read aloud before its price and terms were entered into a computer. Bids for the package deal for eight dental machines ranged from $112,000 offered by a Shanghai company for Korean-made dental machines to $153,000 by a Nanjing company promoting German hardware.

Reporters were informed that high-tech scanners and overhead projectors would help a randomly selected panel of judges evaluate the bids more fully after the media departed.

Over half the bids included enticements that appeared to complicate an easy comparison. In an echo of American late-night television ads, one bidder offered to throw in a compact disk reader worth $769. Another said it would add five machines at a bargain price of $1,282. A third offered 10 for the price of eight.

In response to questions, an official at the center acknowledged that it was difficult to prevent bid-rigging, even in their high-tech center. But by publicizing bids on a government Web site, he added, they hoped to cap such irregularities. Xu Zhongyuan, the center's director, said they have not had a complaint since the center opened 18 months ago.

Officials at various levels of the Jiangsu government proudly pointed to the many morality campaigns, education efforts and public appeals under way to curtail corruption.

"We have an anti-corruption Web site," said Qian Zuyuan, secretary of the Zhangjiagang Party Disciplinary Inspection Bureau. "We watch anti-corruption films. We sing anti-corruption songs."

In choosing Jiangsu as the focus of the trip, Beijing appeared eager to put its best foot forward. "The corruption situation is, relatively speaking, better in Jiangsu than other less-developed parts of China," said Wu Zengji, a law professor at Jiangsu Normal University in Nanjing. "Since the market here is more developed, corruption and political intervention is less obvious."

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