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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September 2004, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
China's graft: Tough talk, old message
By Mary Hennock
BBC News Online

Mr Jin, a farmer in poverty-stricken Ningxia, north west China
The party wants to defend China's poor from corrupt officials
The Chinese authorities have been trying to fight corruption for decades, but their latest warning is unusually blunt.

The Communist Party's Central Committee has issued a policy paper calling corruption "a life and death struggle" for the party.

Even more starkly, it warns that there is nothing inevitable about the Communist Party's hold on power. China's policy of economic reform is at a "critical stage", it says.

"We must develop a stronger sense of crisis, [and] draw experience from the success or failure of other ruling parties in the world," it says.

This stern tone comes just a week after President Hu Jintao secured a firmer grip on China's levers of state, taking over the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission from ex-president Jiang Zemin.

New direction?

So does this emphasis on corruption represent a new way of thinking from China's increasingly powerful younger generation of leaders? The short answer is no.

Shanghai skyline
China's leaders fear corruption threatens stability and growth

Corruption has long been rife in Chinese society, where government and party officials control access to business licences and a host of other vital permits. No business can survive if it loses government backing.

China's economic boom has vastly increased the potential rewards available to crooked officials.

In the southern port of Xiamen, top city officials were caught running a multi-billion dollar smuggling ring in 2001.

Another $6bn oil smuggling ring surfaced in Shenyang, run by the city's mayor, who has since died in jail.

The Communist Party has already shown its willingness to punish its own members for such gross violations. At least seven officials were sentenced to death and China's former deputy minister of police was jailed over the Xiamen case.

Corruption in China usually takes the form of rules, edicts and certificates, all requiring extra fees rather than blunt requests for money.

Peasants often find themselves hit with extra local taxes, or ordered to sign up for development loans which turn out to be money-making schemes for local bureaucrats.

Middle class Chinese complain that schools and hospitals have become so much a part of the entrepreneurial culture that they, too, spew out demands for extra payments on sports clothes, music lessons or unnecessary medical tests.

Accountability

The central problem is that party officials are often able to exercise untrammelled power.

The Central Committee's onslaught against corruption tries to tackle some of the uglier consequences, but contains no mention of wider reforms to the political system that would make officials more accountable to the people they serve.

It sets out its belief that many party officials are unfit for power, but in practice resorts to well-worn solutions - promoting competent officials, retraining others and forcing early retirement on the most crooked or useless.

"Some leading cadres lack... the ability to govern according to the law, and the competence to deal with complicated problems," the latest policy report states.

Meanwhile other leading party members "don't have a strong sense of responsibility, personal integrity, a down-to-earth style of work or a close connection with the general public," it says.

Pushing for change

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have tried to protect peasants from extortion by capping taxes in the two years since they came to power.

Mr Wen, in particular, has projected a "down-to-earth style", and he has become genuinely popular by visiting flood victims and touring hospitals during the Sars crisis.

Jiang Zemin (L) and Hu Jintao
President Hu Jintao (right) has taken control of the army

China is also working hard to institute the rule of law, instead of rulings by officials, although so far it has had mixed results.

Firms have successfully used the courts to enforce commercial contracts, and workers are able to sue bosses who withhold wages.

But courts can still refuse to hear politically sensitive cases, and although China's new leaders want to improve the party, wider political reforms remain firmly off the agenda.

President Hu signalled this, albeit in slightly more coded language, in a speech less than two weeks ago.

"We will never blindly copy the mode of other countries' political systems," he said. "History indicates that indiscriminately copying Western political systems is a blind alley for China."

Mr Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, launched and relaunched many anti-corruption campaigns.

However much its tougher language stands out, the new policy document has much in common with his efforts.



SEE ALSO
China leaders warn of corruption
27 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
China's Jiang cedes military post
19 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Jiang Zemin's departure
19 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: China
13 Aug 04 |  Country profiles
China's victims pick a brave fight
27 Jul 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Hu Jintao
16 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Jiang Zemin
19 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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