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Friday, July 31, 1998 Published at 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

The corrupt comrade

Chen faces his accusers

The imprisonment of Chen Xitong, once one of the most powerful men in China, is the culmination of a spectacular fall from grace.

The former communist party secretary of Beijing and mayor of the city was sentenced by a Chinese court to 16 years on charges of corruption and delegation of duty.

He is the most senior communist party official jailed for such crimes.

The power of guanxi

Mr Chen joined the Chinese communist party in 1949, the same year that the party took power and Chairman Mao famously announced that China had 'stood up'.

[ image: Chen: Accused of running Beijing as his private empire]
Chen: Accused of running Beijing as his private empire
He made his way through a series of city government and industrial offices, building a network of business and political connections known in China as 'guanxi'.

After Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began to reform the Chinese economy in the 1980s, Mr Chen and other Chinese officials made use of these connections to engage in influence peddling for huge personal gain.

Politically, his tough line towards the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989 helped him win promotion to the Communist Party's inner core, the Politburo.

In the early 1990s Mr Chen was riding high. As Mayor and later Communist Party secretary of Beijing he was regularly at the side of China's leaders. He was widely described as having run the city as his own private empire.

Payment for permits

As Beijing launched its highly politicised bid to host the 2000 Olympics, Mr Chen embarked on a massive modernisation of the city.

But rumours began to fly that he and his staff were demanding major bribes in return for construction contracts and in 1995 he was removed from his post.

After more than two years of house arrest and an internal investigation, the party last September expelled him from its ranks and handed the case over to judicial authorities.

[ image: Chen's career peaked with a place on the Politburo]
Chen's career peaked with a place on the Politburo
The party investigation concluded he had "accepted and embezzled a large number of valuable items, and had squandered a large amount of public funds to support a corrupt and decadent life".

Execution not an option

Forty other officials were arrested, and in June 1997 a Beijing court sentenced Chen Xiaotong, Mr Chen's son, to 12 years' imprisonment for accepting bribes and embezzling funds.

Mr Chen's imprisonment has ended widespread speculation that China's leaders would not dare prosecute such a senior figure.

[ image: A spectacular fall from grace]
A spectacular fall from grace
But although his sentence was severe, many observers note that others convicted of corruption have received the death penalty.

"Execution was never really an option for him because of his seniority," said an unnamed diplomat based in Beijing. "They had to be seen as giving him a heavy sentence."

Corruption campaign

Mr Chen's conviction is part of a five-year-long crackdown by the authorities against corruption - one of the main sources of public discontent towards the Chinese leadership.

"Corruption is a dangerous tinderbox issue" an Asian diplomat based in Beijing told Reuters news agency.

"That could be the spark that sets off even wider unrest than the low-level unrest that is simmering at the moment over unemployment and failure to pay wages."

[ image: President Jiang: Tackling corruption]
President Jiang: Tackling corruption
A BBC correspondent in Beijing says with President Jiang Zemin now confident in his own power, he has felt able to tackle corruption in the higher ranks of the party.

Since 1992, the Communist Party has expelled over 100,000 lesser officials for a range of offences including bribery, embezzlement and even feasting at public expense.

But economic analysts say the remaining extensive bureaucratic control over economic activity in China creates opportunities for corruption that do not exist in market-oriented economies.

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