Chinese shoot corrupt politicians


The "degeneration" of the politician happened because he "fell victim to the temptations of women and money, and took advantage of the power endowed by the party and the people to make personal gains". Sound familiar?

This was not a judge at one of the Dublin Castle tribunals but a disciplinary commission of the Chinese Communist Party, commenting recently on Mr Cheng Kejie, a deputy chairman of the Chinese parliament. Unlike his soul mates in Ireland, Mr Cheng cannot hope to brazen it out; he can only expect a bullet in the head. In China they shoot corrupt politicians.

Last month the former deputy mayor of the southern city of Guigang, Li Chenglong, was executed after accepting cash donations (in red envelopes) for handing out jobs and construction contracts. Two months ago a former deputy governor of Jiangxi province, Hu Changqing, was shot by the state for taking bribes, becoming the most senior official to be put to death in 50 years.

Chen Xitong, the corrupt mayor of Beijing, barely escaped with his life. He was jailed in 1998 for 16 years; his deputy, Wang Baosen, committed suicide. In China they also shoot officials and businessmen caught up in sleaze, or put them away for long prison terms.

On Saturday Shen Weibiao, the 32-year-old manager of a Bank of China branch in the city of Shaoguan, was executed for the white-collar crime of diverting funds for his own use.

Yesterday Mou Qizhong, once known as China's richest man, was sentenced to life by a court in Wuhan for foreign exchange fraud. Instead of a lengthy tribunal to mull over his complex billion-dollar transactions, he got precisely one day in court.

The forms of corruption are depressingly familiar.

Mr Cheng allegedly first accepted an envelope of cash in 1992 for lowering the price of redevelopment land, and then took kickbacks for issuing building licences at low prices.

He also had a mistress, a married woman named Li Ping. He was secretly videotaped with her at a Macau casino, which may have been his real undoing. The possibility of being shot has powerfully concentrated his conscience. Mr Cheng has since offered to return all his illegal income to the nation.

A novel idea!

The official People's Daily said the arrest of Cheng showed "there is no hiding place for corrupt elements in the party" and they would be shown no mercy in an all-out attempt to clean house.

The party's image is crucial to its survival. If it gains a reputation as nothing more than a club for corrupt officials, the one-party system loses its legitimacy.

The prospect is annihilation in an upsurge of unrest. The punishment of a high official is clearly meant as an example to the party and the people alike.

"The Chinese have learned from their history," said Mr Sean O'Shea, a director of the Beijing-based consultants, Reid and Associates, who is originally from Westmeath. "The tolerance level for corruption has to be much lower in China because of the propensity for any such activity to swiftly become a challenge to basic social order, whether under the emperor or the party."

Tough punishments seem popular in China, which has the highest rate of executions in the world. There is an utter lack of public sympathy for apprehended officials.

In contrast to Ireland, where wealth and power are admired and the "untouchables" belong to the elite, class divisions are only now beginning to emerge in China, and the rich are envied rather than esteemed.

Deng Xiaoping said a decade ago that it was glorious to be rich, but the suspicion is deep-rooted that fat cats can get rich only through corruption.

There is a golden circle of sorts in China. No senior officer of the People's Liberation Army has ever been prosecuted, despite widespread reports of military involvement in large-scale smuggling.

Hundreds of government officials are said to be caught up in a gigantic smuggling racket in Fujian. But since it reportedly implicates high officials in Beijing with Fujian connections, a news blackout on the investigation has been imposed.

With the Premier, Zhu Rongji, dedicated to smashing corruption, it is a precarious circle to belong to. When starting his anti-corruption campaign two years ago, Mr Zhu said he had 100 coffins - 99 for corrupt apparatchiks, and one for himself if he failed to fill the others.

There is an obvious parallel in the growth of corruption in Ireland and China. In both countries money began seeping to officials and politicians when the economy started to take off. In China the opportunities for embezzlement multiplied more quickly, as state assets were privatised and banks continued to make up losses.

"Ten years ago there wasn't half as much corruption in China," said a Chinese economist. "Go back 20 years and there was almost none. There was nothing to spread around and public assets were of little value."

Now it has reached endemic proportions, and the sums are huge. Embezzlement from state funds in the first half of 1999 totalled 20 billion yuan (£1.7 billion), according to the government's conservative figures. In the same period, according to the People's Daily, 120 billion yuan of state funds, one-fifth of tax revenues, were "misused", a term which covers many sins.

But no one in China need fear a public tribunal - only the executioner's bullet.