China's Crackdown on Corruption Still Largely Secret

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 31, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 30 -- The Chinese government last week announced the disgrace of another senior Communist Party official accused of corruption. Du Shicheng, it said, was stripped of his posts as deputy party secretary of Shandong province and party secretary of Qingdao city because of a "serious discipline violation."

Nothing was said about what misdeeds Du might have committed, but the announcement stated that his fall from power was "another sign of the central government's tough stand against corruption." The Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was investigating the case, it added, but there was no word on whether he would be charged with a crime.

Du's firing -- the fourth of a major party figure this year -- was another chapter in President Hu Jintao's crackdown on the bribery and embezzlement that have become a big part of China's economic expansion. But it also illustrated the limits of Hu's anti-corruption drive. Despite repeated vows to weed out corrupt officials, the government's campaign remains a self-cleansing operation by the Communist Party's own bureaucracy, without monitoring by an independent judicial system or a free press.

Although corruption is still a fact of life in China, Chinese businessmen said, Hu's intensifying campaign has had a palpable effect in recent months. One wealthy Beijing entrepreneur, speaking on condition of anonymity over a steaming hot-pot dinner, said officials across the country have begun to think twice about accepting bribes, or at least to think about keeping them discreet.

In one key step, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission has increased control over its counterparts at the provincial, municipal and county levels. By naming and dispatching investigators from Beijing, experts said, Hu has sought to reduce the ability of corrupt local officials to protect one another. A young Beijing-based investigator told friends that he has repeatedly been sent to the provinces this year to look into corruption allegations that local investigators were not pursuing vigorously enough.

But some Chinese experts have begun to question whether fighting corruption Hu's way -- having the party investigate its own, and largely in secret -- can ever rid China of official malfeasance. The discipline commission operates under political supervision, they noted. Until China gets a justice system that has the power to investigate and prosecute in public without political guidance, they said, the party's instinct to preserve its position is likely to overwhelm its desire to reduce corruption.

"What do corrupt officials like most? The so-called interior punishment, that only a few people know about," Shao Daosheng, a retired sociologist from the government-connected Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an Internet article. "What do corrupt officials hate most? Open and transparent revelation. . . . Because there is no effective public supervision, anti-corruption can only stay on a very superficial level."

Another Chinese corruption specialist put it more succinctly: "The party can't solve its own problem," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

An illustration of how the system operates was provided by a recent announcement from China's General Administration of Civil Aviation. It said on Dec. 12 that Nuctech, a company headed by Hu Haifeng, the president's son, had won a multimillion-dollar contract to supply Chinese airports with scanning equipment to detect suspicious liquids in passengers' luggage.

Gossip buzzed about the deal in private, but nobody dared suggest in public that it had the appearance of impropriety because of Nuctech's connections. By the end of the month, however, unofficial corruption monitors were saying somebody high in government had intervened to stop the deal. Neither Nuctech nor the aviation administration said anything further.

Taiwan's recent experience has provided a telling contrast, the specialists noted. Prosecutors in Taipei, who are outside of political control, have put President Chen Shui-bian's wife on trial for embezzlement and jailed his son-in-law for insider trading, all under intense and detailed scrutiny in the media. Chen, while proclaiming his and his wife's innocence, has reaffirmed the prosecutor's right, even duty, to pursue the case.

The investigations have been hailed on the self-ruled island as a major step forward for Taiwanese democracy and a welcome sign that its prosecutors and judges are free from manipulation by the government. "For the first time, our judicial system is independent," said Antonio Chiang, a former official under Chen.

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