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A Plea for Honesty Transfixes China

Lowly Party Cadre Decries Official Corruption in Open Letter

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page A14

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- An obscure Communist Party cadre in southern China burst into the national limelight Friday with an open letter in which he complained bitterly that his efforts to fight corruption had been stymied by more senior government and party officials.

"I couldn't get any support from local leaders or departments," lamented Huang Jingao, party secretary for Lianjiang county, 300 miles south of Shanghai in Fujian province. "I was puzzled."

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao

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In a lengthy account of what he depicted as his crusade to jail dishonest local officials and their co-conspirators in business, Huang decried the "underlying rules" by which corrupt Chinese officials protect one another's backs.

After he took over as Lianjiang county party chief in January 2002, he said in his screed, he was approached by people who complained that his predecessor had colluded with real estate developers to drive residents from their homes and sell government-owned land at below-value prices. His investigations confirmed their claims, he said.

Huang's letter seemed to touch a national nerve. Web sites buzzed with favorable comment on his bravery in speaking up. Beijing subway riders were heard discussing the case on their way to work. Newspapers editorialized about their role in promoting honest government.

First published on the Web site of the official People's Daily, the letter was not unusual for what it alleged. Officials and ordinary people across China have long bemoaned the graft that has accompanied economic reforms over the last 25 years.

"It will be an arduous task for the government to rectify itself and fight corruption," Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged in his annual state of the nation speech March 5.

What was significant was Huang's decision to vent his frustrations openly and the willingness of China's censored press to give him a national forum. Despite the changes that have revolutionized China's economy and allowed some political and social freedom, information has usually remained tightly controlled; the government and the Communist Party work mostly in secret.

Huang said he wrote his manifesto last Sunday. It was aired Wednesday morning by People's Daily, the official organ of the government and the party. Journalists from Hong Kong to Beijing jumped on the story Thursday. When Friday's editions came out, the whole country was reading about Huang's struggle in Lianjiang.

"Huang's resorting to the media shows his confidence in the power of public opinion," commented the government-controlled China Daily in Beijing. "The media have played an increasingly bigger role in checking and uncovering corruption, demonstrating that outside supervision is also conducive to the anti-corruption fight."

Despite the public attention, there was no immediate comment from provincial or national authorities.

In a string of interviews, Huang, 52, portrayed himself as a former farmer with a middle-school education, a loyal party official who rose through the ranks and wants only to do the right thing.

"I want to be heard, the voice of a party secretary in a helpless situation," he told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post in a telephone interview. "High-level cadres don't know what is happening. Sometimes they are fooled by their underlings. They should know the truth."

Huang refused to be interviewed by The Washington Post. Reached by telephone, he said he was a faithful Communist Party member and did not want to talk with foreign media. "We have party discipline," he explained.

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