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In the runup to the National People’s Congress that opens Sunday, Chinese authorities have intensified their crackdown on corruption and smuggling. Chinese leaders, who see 2000 as a milestone in their anticorruption drive, are gripped by a sense of crisis: They will lose the trust and support of the people unless more effective action is taken to stamp out graft.

The Chinese Communist Party has been fighting high-level corruption since the 15th party congress in 1997. The next year, Premier Zhu Rongji took strong action to prohibit military and police officers from running businesses. But the climate of bribery persists, as evidenced by frequent arrests of party and government officials as well as businessmen.

A key member of the NPC has been questioned about his role in a massive bribery scandal involving an estimated 400 million yuan (about 5 billion yen). The official, Mr. Cheng Kejie, a deputy standing committee chairman, is charged with receiving huge kickbacks from a smuggling syndicate and giving public-works contracts to family-owned enterprises. The scandal also involves many local officials, as well as Mr. Cheng’s wife, children and secretaries. If convicted, he will be the highest-ranking party official to be sentenced for the crime of corruption since the founding of the Chinese People’s Republic.

Another high-profile corruption scandal uncovered recently is a smuggling scheme carried out through a trading company in Xiamen, the port city in Fujian Province. The operation, described as “the largest smuggling case since the founding of the republic,” reportedly dates to the early 1990s. Since then, a variety of goods, including oil, gasoline and cars, is said to have been illegally traded to the tune of some 800 billion yuan (about 1 trillion yen). Beijing authorities sent a special team of investigators to Xiamen and arrested many high-ranking public-security, customs and municipal government officials. It is reported that the wife of a Politburo member specially selected by President Jiang Zemin also played a role in the wrongdoing.

In fact, the corruption scandals that have come to light in China in the last decade are more extensive and complex than those of the 1980s, and cut across a broad spectrum of officialdom, including ranking administrators, security and customs officials and even military officers. Unless this tide of corruption is turned back, the monolithic ruling establishment of the Chinese Communist Party, a mammoth organization of 6.1 million members and 3.5 million work units, may be doomed.

Rampant corruption is attributable to the fact that market-oriented reforms have widened the gap between rich and poor, creating growing discontent among jobless workers. At last year’s NPC meeting, delegates from Shanghai presented a resolution calling for anticorruption legislation. And 22 percent of all delegates voted against a report submitted by that nation’s highest inspection agency. Both moves clearly show that the Chinese people are not happy with the way the government and the party deal with corruption.

No doubt bribery and corruption will also be top agenda items in the coming national assembly. First, the meeting appears most likely to call for wider disclosure to get rid of the dictum “Do not explain policy to the subjects; do not let them know about policy,” a paraphrase of a Confucian saying. If Beijing leaders still follow this ancient dictum, they will be urged to dump it in the dustbin of history.

In his Jan. 14 address to a meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, President Jiang said rampant corruption stems in part from “lax party discipline and negligence in education, management and supervision.” He called on party cadres to strictly “supervise” their spouses and children.

Prime Minister Zhu, meanwhile, announced a doubling of salaries for government officials over the next three years — a move that is intended to root out official corruption. Apparently, Mr. Zhu is trying to follow the successful example set by Hong Kong. But there is an important difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China: While officials in the former British colony respect the rule of law, those in Beijing are not well aware of it. It is doubtful that the “Hong Kong formula” will work in China.

The epidemic of corruption also affects in one way or another foreign businesses operating in China as the country tries to move toward its own version of capitalism, “the socialist market economy.” Experience in industrialized democracies shows that a free press, political democracy, an open and democratic economy and developed police and justice systems, among other things, are essential if a society is to be free from corruption. In this sense, China still has a long way to go.

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