Chinese Assail Official Misconduct With Fervor

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 20, 2007

BEIJING, Dec. 19 -- China's new National Bureau of Corruption Prevention thought it would be a good idea to open a Web site for citizens to denounce crooked officials. The idea was so good that the site was immediately deluged this week by irate Chinese, overwhelming the system and causing several crashes during the first two days of operation.

The outpouring from people around the country was seen as a measure of how deeply Chinese resent the official corruption that has infected Communist Party rule during three decades of economic reform. By the end of Wednesday, the site had recorded more than 250 entries despite the technical difficulties. Entries ranged from tirades and accusations to congratulations for cracking down.

An official said the site was being adjusted to handle the unexpected volume.

The party's senior leaders, including President Hu Jintao, have identified official malfeasance as one of China's most worrisome problems, warning that so many people are becoming alienated that the party's hold on power could be threatened. The problem has become particularly acute as party officials increasingly land on the rich side of the yawning gap between rich and poor.

As comments on the Web site demonstrated, many Chinese are fed up with high living by party officials who, they conclude almost reflexively, are receiving bribes from businessmen or allocating public funds for their own use. The assumption that local officials are corrupt has helped undermine the party's legitimacy among China's 1.3 billion people in recent years.

Contributors to the site criticized what they said was excessive wealth accumulated by corrupt village and township officials, private use of official cars, and village elections rigged to keep the same families in power year after year. But most of the denunciations submitted were devoid of specifics such as the names or titles of allegedly corrupt officials, raising questions as to how useful they would be to the corruption prevention bureau.

One contributor, who said he worked for an unnamed state-owned business, complained that the company director gets perquisites including a car, driver and cellphone, and an entertainment budget amounting to nearly $2,500 a month, while "ordinary people cannot afford to live or even to die."

"Our boss's lifestyle is truly a source of envy," he wrote. "He doesn't have to spend a penny of his salary."

Another writer, who identified himself as Qing Feng, or "clear wind," condemned what he described as the soft life led by officials' offspring. With no visible source of income, he said, the young princelings drive new cars, live in new houses and spend money like there is no tomorrow.

"This is not normal," he added. "You should look into it."

Tian Lianshan wrote in to say he returned to his native Henan province recently to help family members embroiled in a dispute with local officials, only to find corruption at the root of the problem. "I came to realize fully the serious corruption at the local level," he said.

Most complaints about corruption in China are aimed at local officials in village, township, county and provincial governments. Rarely has an accusation been leveled openly against senior Communist Party leaders, although gossip is rife about their children profiting from official connections. True to the pattern, most contributors to the Internet site denounced local officials and urged the central government to intervene.

"I hope you can work with full confidence," wrote one. "At least 1.299 billion citizens, excepting the 0.001 billion corrupt officials, will support you."

The National Bureau of Corruption Prevention was established recently, under Premier Wen Jiabao's cabinet, with the goal of using public campaigns and training to prevent misconduct. The job of investigating and punishing corrupt officials has long been entrusted to the Communist Party's Discipline and Inspection Commission.

An anti-corruption specialist noted that this system -- in which the party essentially investigates itself -- has made effective controls difficult if not impossible. Police and the courts are brought in, he noted, only after the party leadership decides on the fate of suspect officials. Moreover, strict party censorship has prevented the news media from playing a strong role in bringing illegal conduct to light.

Ren Jianming, who runs a corruption studies institute at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said that the public can be an important force in denouncing corruption but that informants must be protected by law from revenge by fingered officials. "If these problems cannot be solved, I am afraid the public will gradually lose enthusiasm and confidence," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company