China’s House Cleaning is Just Skin Deep

On the evening of June 4, investigators from the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee of the Communist Party scheduled a two-hour meeting with a senior official in Tianjin to discuss allegations of corruption against him.

But that morning, a member of Song Pingshun’s staff had already found his boss on his bed, dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. Song, 62, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Tianjin, had been chief of Tianjin’s police force for 15 years and was one of its best known officials, having served in the city for more than 40 years. Song is the most prominent victim of yet another of China’s recurring campaigns against corruption. Having held the rank of minister, he became the highest-ranking suicide in China since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when dozens of senior officials took their own lives to escape torture, persecution and imprisonment by Red Guards.

To escape arrest, other lesser officials also have taken their own lives, an act which protects their families and their assets, as the cleanup campaign has intensified in the last 10 months ahead of the Communist Party Congress in Beijing this autumn. Those arrested include the party chief of Shanghai, the head of the State Statistical Bureau, the vice mayor of Beijing, and Zheng Xiaoyu, who was director of the Food and Drug Administration from its founding until 1998 until mid-2005.On May 28, in the wake aftermath of a horrific scandal involving adulterated baby formula and exported medicines that killed scores of people overseas, Zheng was sentenced to death for taking US$850,000 in bribes in exchange for approving drug production licenses – he is the highest-level official to face the death penalty since 2004.

There are periodic anticorruption campaigns in China, usually resulting in the jailing of petty officials. In the early part of the decade, for instance, the government arrested as many as 30,000 officials over a three-year period. More than 4,000 were ultimately charged with bribery, another 8,000 were said to have broken regulations on holding government positions at the same time they held corporate jobs, and 1,000 used state-owned vehicles improperly.

To the outside world, the campaign appears dramatic, especially ahead of the congress, which is held every five years. And while the current sentences are dramatic indeed, they attract seemingly little interest from the Chinese public, who see the convicted as losers in a political power struggle rather than officials who have broken the law.

“Song’s patrons were not high enough to protect him,” said Wu Xiumei, a Shanghai schoolteacher. “Corruption is endemic in the government and the party. This campaign will be no different from earlier ones, but the struggle is intense ahead of a party congress. There is evidence to convict everyone.”

China, of course, is a society of families, clans and networks whose members help each other with gifts, favors and promotions. Song’s crime was to take bribes to help members of his family, an act so common it hardly raises eyebrows at most times. In some departments, corruption is collective, with lower officials passing the bulk of their take up the line. Those who work in these departments risk the end of their career if they do not take part, because their superiors will suspect them of lining their own pockets

The most common forms of corruption were listed in a directive of new regulations issued by the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee, the same group Song worked with in Tianjin, in early June. It described nine kinds of transaction from which officials are banned. They include the acquisition of homes, cars and shares at no cost or below market value, the granting of nonexistent jobs at high salaries for their relatives, accepting gifts through gambling and the establishment of companies and investments jointly with outside parties.

He Yong, vice party secretary of the CDIC, said that the new regulations were needed because officials were continuously finding new ways to get around anti-corruption laws and regulations and to hide their gains. The government is also setting up a new State Corruption Prevention Bureau.

Several factors explain the current anti-corruption campaign, the fiercest since Hu Jintao became party chief in 2002. One is the need to remove rivals from office. Another is that official corruption is the number-one cause of public anger, especially concerning distribution of land, which officials award to favored developers at the expense of those who live on it, whether farmers or urban residents. Demonstrations against such deals, conducted out of the public eye and with little or no recourse by residents, are widespread and sometimes violent. Arresting and imprisoning officials involved in illegal land deals is popular with the public.

A third is Hu’s growing concern over the widening gap between the rich and poor. As the value of land, shares and property increase, those who hold and trade assets become richer, while the mass of people on modest incomes fall further behind. As house prices rise, common people are forced to move further and further from city centers and workplaces.

But few expect this campaign to have any more success than previous ones in addressing the nature of corruption. Power in China remains concentrated in one place the party, which controls the police, media, judiciary and parliament. Hu has made no change in that system, which ultimately centralizes corruption along with power.

Scholars have made many proposals to address the issue – higher wages for civil servants to make them less vulnerable to bribes, fewer restrictions on the media to let them act as watchdogs, and a judicial system that is more independent and implements laws and regulations fairly.

But in these areas Hu has shown himself a conservative. Press freedom and civil rights have diminished during his administration. The government remains as secretive as ever, with, for example, details of the sale of public land not made public.

This leaves the public with no way to keep track officials and the dealings, since they know so little of the workings of government. The fight against corruption, like everything else involving power and the party, is an internal affair.

It is a system that breeds a cynical attitude in the public. A Beijing taxi driver once expressed a common opinion during a drive through city traffic: “If you lined up 100 officials against a wall and executed them, you might kill one innocent person.” The latest corruption campaign is unlikely to change the punch line.