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Hardly a week goes by in China now without some leader being executed or arraigned for corruption. And the level of the officials being charged and convicted (much the same thing in China) is rising.

In the last year we have seen the executions of Hu Changqing, deputy governor of Jiangxi Province, Li Chenglong, vice mayor of Guiyang in Gaungxi Province and, highest of all, Cheng Kejie, vice chairman of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. More recently, Mu Suixin, the mayor of Shenyang, and even the minister of justice himself, Gao Changli, have been relieved of their posts pending investigation of allegations of corruption. In the last two cases, it was the activities of the women, wife and mistress respectively, that precipitated to the fall from grace.

We are also waiting for a final accounting in the large-scale smuggling case in Xiamen, in which more than 200 people have been implicated in a $10 billion scam. This case was said to involve people high in the Communist Party hierarchy, although so far only the vice minister of public security, Li Jizhou, has been arrested. The alleged mastermind of the Xiamen case, Lai Changxing, chairman of the Yuanhua Company that is claimed to have organized the smuggling, escaped to Canada, where he is now subject to extradition proceedings.

Corruption in contemporary China is hardly news. In the six years between the fourth and fifth Anti-Corruption Investigative Work Conferences in 1994 and 2000, there were more than 270,000 cases of corruption and bribery at all levels in the Chinese government. Of these, 13,000 officials held positions higher than county level, 700 of them being departmental directors or the equivalent and 10 at ministerial level. These, of course, are only the ones who got caught, or those whom the party decided to expose.

Yet the pace of prosecutions does appear to be accelerating. The reason seems to be political. Two arguments have been put forward. The first is that there is growing disenchantment with the party among the ordinary people, who see little change in their quality of life or even a worsening of conditions for many people, especially those being made redundant or forced into early retirement by the reform of state-owned enterprises. They can see the lifestyles of many party and government officials growing more ostentatious every day.

The second reason given for the tougher crackdown on corruption is that China’s leaders are locked in a battle over succession to the presidency, the premiership and other posts that have to be filled over the next two years. More than half the positions in the Central Committee and all the senior positions in the party and government have to be changed by the end of 2003.

In this battle, President Jiang Zemin holds the high cards. He has the personnel files of all of China’s leaders, down to provincial and municipal levels. At the Chinese leaders’ annual retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe last summer, Jiang showed each of the provincial and municipal leaders a detailed list of known corrupt practices taking place under their jurisdiction. It is generally assumed that the selection of cases for prosecution is at least partly determined by political factors such as factional affiliation (except in cases such as that of the minister of justice, where a jealous wife apparently blew the whistle, which then forced the hand of the party). Possession of the dossiers gives the president a great deal of power. This power he shares with his protege Zeng Qinghong, who is responsible for maintaining the files and, for this reason, is much feared by his colleagues. His is a name to watch for in the coming shuffling of party leaders.

One of China’s leading economists, Taiwanese-born Professor (Justin) Lin Lifu of Beijing University, has said that Chinese-style corruption is market-supporting, as against Russian-style corruption, which is market-destroying. The logic, according to Lin, is that in China bribes are paid so as to provide access to markets that would not otherwise be available to the bribers, whereas in Russia the Mafia bribes the government to give them antimarket monopoly power. While there is some truth in this, it ignores the fact that in the process the government itself becomes corrupted and the people disenchanted and disaffected. This is especially the case when bribery is used to obtain privileged access to jobs in government, to places in good schools and universities and to high-quality health care and housing.

This is not to say that the rich, at least those who came by their wealth honestly, shouldn’t be able to buy better-quality health care, housing and education, only that they should not be able use their buying power to get privileged access to state-financed facilities. The Tiananmen democracy protests of 1989 and the strength of Falun Gong, which may yet bring down the Communist Party, were born of widespread frustration with such corruption.

Is the writing really on the wall for the corrupt? Many of them obviously think so; capital flight over the last few years has been running at record high levels, totaling tens of millions of dollars. Those who think the political stars they have hitched their fortunes to may fall from the sky in the leadership reshuffles are getting worried and running for cover, or at least are sending their money for cover to provide themselves with a safe haven in retirement. Meanwhile it is business as usual for those who think their stars are safe, and as there are a lot of them, we can confidently predict that corruption will continue. So will the growth in the number of prosecutions against those who go a step too far or who forget to keep their wife happy.

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