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Wednesday, 13 September, 2000, 19:18 GMT 20:18 UK
Corruption: End of China's Party?
China's parliament
Chinese officials have been told to clean up their act
By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

For China's leaders it is the cancer that threatens to bring down the government - the greatest threat to the Communist Party's continued grip on power.

Corruption is the number one enemy in China today and the government is determined to make a big show of trying to wipe it out.

By its own admission, bribery, extortion, smuggling and racketeering are endemic throughout every level of the Communist Party.

Without firm action, they fear ordinary Chinese will lose faith in their leaders.

Already burdened with rising unemployment and other pressures brought about by painful economic reforms, there are concerns that if corruption goes unchecked it will cause many to turn against the government.

Hard to resist

Poster of convicted officials
Convicted officials have been made an example of
Across China's vast territory corruption has taken on a variety of forms, many of them a consequence of economic reform.

As a result of these many government officials, particularly at the local level, have found themselves stuck with relatively low salaries. For them the temptation for self-enrichment can prove hard to resist.

In some cases district heads are found to have built up their own mini-fiefdoms, imposing illegal taxes on local farmers and businesses out of sight of Beijing's gaze.

Most common though are accusations of officials abusing their position to extract bribes and kickbacks with the amounts of cash changing hands often running to millions of dollars.

Shanghai skyline
China's economic boom has raised opportunities for corruption
Dr Xu Cheng Gang, Lecturer in Economics at London University says that the root of the problem is the lack of separation between business and government brought about by efforts to open up the Chinese economy.

"In a completely centrally planned economy," he says, "when there was no market, corruption was less important because although they were powerful officials were not able to sell.

Emerging markets

Now, he says, with China in the midst of economic upheaval, the government continues to allocate resources, placing officials at the centre of the market and enabling them to channel profits into their own pockets.

With growing numbers unemployed China fears popular disatisfaction could boil over
According to Dr Xu, the government faces a contradiction - on the one hand it wants to crackdown on corruption whilst on the other it wants to keep its central position in controlling the economy.

"In the first case they must reform more thoroughly to separate government and business completely", he says. "In that sense, they are going to weaken the party's economic power, but they may gain better reputation politically

"Or they keep the current structure and fight all the time against corruption but without much success."

Secret trials

With the government's self-declared war intensifying, a series of trials has resulted in death sentences for a number of party officials.

Usually these are kept secret, the verdict only trumpeted in the state-run media after the case has ended.

Trials of corrupt officials are often only reported after the verdict
The most senior official to fall victim so far has been parliamentary vice-chairman Cheng Kejie, senenced to death in July for taking more than $5m in bribes.

Backing up its tough image the government has organised a series of high-profile anti-graft conferences and exhibitions designed to dissuade others from following in his footsteps.

It has even ordered officials to head to the movies to see "Life and Death Choice" - a film depicting the struggle faced by an honest city mayor battling endemic corruption in the communist party.

Big fish

A mock courtroom formed the centre of a recent anti-graft exhibition
China's leaders have promised that no official, however high up and however well connected, will be exempt from investigation.

However, many cynics doubt that the really big fish will ever be brought to account.

Whilst a few highly placed officials may be sacrificed to the greater good of the party, they doubt that those who really pull the strings will be willing to see their colleagues brought down.

Corruption may be seen as a threat to the Communist Party's continued grip on power, but for any of its most senior members to be implicated must be considered unthinkable.

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See also:

13 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
China starts mass corruption trials
08 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Top Chinese official executed
20 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
China expels 'corrupt' official
05 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese premier attacks corruption
09 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese corruption partner gets life
23 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
Corruption scandal hits China
21 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
China uncovers corruption rackets
21 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Three Gorges corruption scandal
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