Fri, 15 Sep 2000

A test of nerves

Beijing's avowed intention to stamp out corruption at all levels reaches its apex with the trial which began in five cities in Fujian province (Wednesday).

The Yuanhua smuggling scandal trial is the biggest in the Communist Party's 51-year history, and intended to show that no one is immune from investigation. The dramatic fall of former National People's Congress chairman Chen Kejie, under sentence of death for accepting bribes and kickbacks worth 41 million yuan, was the most recent demonstration that high office is no longer any guarantee of protection. But this case has tentacles reaching into even higher echelons of the party.

It is so sensitive that the authorities have refused to say how many defendants are involved. Party officials indicate that suspects include the former intelligence chief of the PLA (People's Liberation Army), the former Xiamen Customs boss and a former provincial police deputy. In all, more than 200 people are indicted. The wife of Beijing's Communist Party secretary, Jia Qinglin, is said to be implicated, and the tight controls over court procedure are attributed to fears among senior officials that an open trial could implicate them or their family members.

Crucially, this is a test of the mainland leadership's nerve. If only local officials are punished, when so many big names are thought to have been embroiled in the scam, the show trial could be seen as a fudge. Mainland analysts say the tens of billions of yuan involved in the scam are too great to have been amassed without involvement at senior levels.

But Chen Kejie's sentence, and the execution of Hu Changqing, vice-governor of Jiangxi province, at the same time as the plenary session of the National People's Congress was being held, are signs that the Government recognises it must reel in the big fish if it hopes to stem the epidemic.

There is a long way to go. Virtually no province is free of taint. Crime syndicates include party officials, police, state security and army chiefs. More trials can be expected, but the Government is now looking at ways to stop future officials being drawn to a life of crime. Reform of the cadre system is under way, cancelling jobs for life, allowing for more public involvement in appointments, and making checks on disclosure of assets. Increased transparency and closer monitoring by the graft-fighting agencies will increase stability and improve the lives of the people as much as show trials and the fall of the mighty.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong