By Jonathan Kaiman, The Observer
But Communist party leadership’s clean-up is only skin-deep, say analysts, as Beijing censors crack down on expression of dissenting views
An anti-corruption drive in China has netted suspects that include an executive accused of cavorting with gigolos, a young woman who owns 11 apartments, a provincial official with 47 mistresses and a vice-mayor with ties to a drug gang. Many alleged misdeeds were exposed by internet users – mostly whistleblowers and rogue journalists – and promulgated via unusually freewheeling coverage in state-owned media.
Another, less vaunted government clampdown – this one on dissenting views – leaves little hope for a Chinese people-power renaissance. Over the past week authorities have surreptitiously replaced an outspoken editorial in a liberal newspaper with brazen propaganda, scrubbed an open letter calling for constitutional governance from the internet, and closed down an outspoken Beijing-based magazine for advocating political reform.
Communist party secretary Xi Jinping said corruption could lead to the “end of the party”. His administration has ruthlessly singled out venal officials and is implementing a series of regulations to limit displays of official waste. Yet analysts say that Xi’s anti-graft drive is only skin-deep, and that party leaders will be hard pressed to eradicate corruption while maintaining their perennially hard line on dissent.
“For a short period of time, you can have draconian measures that can deter corruption, but in the long term the best way to deal with it is to make sure that there are checks and balances,” said Steve Tsang, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.
Yet there are many reasons why a culture of corruption will persist – officials are low-paid and poorly supervised, and the lack of a free press and independent judiciary eliminates any prospect of well-measured oversight.
“What we are likely to see, following Xi Jinping’s commitment to his new policy, is that government officials will be a lot more careful in not displaying their ill-gotten gains,” said Tsang. “They will do enough to reassure Xi that things are under control, and that is as far as they will go.”
Since Xi became the top Communist party leader in November, the central leadership has made an all-out drive to appear transparent and down to earth. Xi has banned a number of wasteful government practices, including prolonged speechifying and traffic-disrupting motorcades. A ban on expensive liquor at military banquets caused some prestigious brands’ stock prices to plummet. The state news agency Xinhua has published extensive profiles of the country’s seven most powerful leaders, a well-meaning stab at transparency, although they offer little more than breathless praise.
The recent explosion of corruption allegations on China’s popular micro-blogs, however, has done more to reveal the depth of the problem than validate official efforts to eliminate it. A blog post on 30 December accused the party secretary of an impoverished county in Yunnan province of purchasing 10 SUVs and getting drunk with a group of attractive women.
The vice-mayor of a small city in Guangdong province lost his job after a subordinate exposed his connection to a local drug ring. Blog posts accuse the deputy chief of the province’s Land Resource Bureau of having affairs with 47 mistresses and receiving almost £2.8bn in bribes.
Chinese media have accused the twentysomething daughter of a former housing official in Zhengzhou, capital of central Henan province, of owning 11 flats. Her 27-year-old brother may own as many as 14. Her family is under investigation.
Last week Chinese message boards filled with pictures supposedly showing a female executive at the state-owned China Petrochemical Corporation cavorting with male prostitutes in an upmarket Beijing club. Media reports suggested that an American company may have plied her with the gigolos – and then blackmailed her with videotapes of their encounter – to secure a lucrative building contract in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The woman responded immediately, saying that she would “definitely pursue legal actions against those vicious slanders”. There is no doubt that they could ruin her career. In November, Chongqing official Lei Zhengfu was sacked 72 hours after an investigative reporter leaked a five-year-old video of him sleeping with his young mistress to the internet.
Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said that while China’s limitations on freedom of speech were systemic – the party simply does not tolerate perceived attacks on its legitimacy – the growing power of bloggers to expose corrupt officials comes from loopholes in the country’s arcane censorship system.
“In China it’s really hard to use these individual cases to make any predictions about the future,” he said. “Because, in the end, the decision-making process is completely opaque.”
While giving broad latitude to some internet users in the anti-corruption frenzy, Chinese censors have quashed reports that target the party’s highest leaders. They blocked the New York Times and Bloomberg websites for publishing exposés on the wealth accumulated by the families of Xi and departing premier Wen Jiabao.
Last week propaganda officials in Guangzhou province heavily revised a front-page editorial in the left-inclined newspaper Southern Weekend without the consent of its staff. The published editorial was half the length of the original, brazenly pro-Communist, and laden with factual and typographical errors. Fifty-one Southern Weekend employees signed an open letter calling the disruption “ignorant and excessive”.
Officials closed one of China’s most outspoken and reform-minded magazines on Friday after it published an article calling for constitutional governance and political reform. The Beijing-based Yanhuang Chunqiu’s website now shows a picture of a cartoon policeman holding out a badge. “The website that you are visiting has been closed because it has not been registered,” it says, without giving further detail.
A week earlier, an open letter advocating political reform was posted on the internet and signed by 73 prominent intellectuals, including professors at some of the country’s most respected universities.
If the Chinese government does not reform, the letter warned, “then official corruption and dissatisfaction in society will boil up to a crisis point and China will once again miss the opportunity for peaceful reform, and slip into the turbulence and chaos of violent revolution”. Online references to the letter have since been deleted.
Additional research by Chuan Xu