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Date Posted: 21:47 22/12/2004

Dirty rotten bureaucrats

Corruption continues to plague the Chinese government

IN THE first eleven months of the year, China has investigated 36,509 cases of corruption involving 42,225 people and creating direct economic losses of 3.829 billion RMB (US$ 462 milion), according to reports. In fact, it is believed that over 30 percent of criminal prosecutions in China over the last decade have involved public servants on the take.

Of course, without these cases of embezzlement, backdoor deals and outright theft, there would be nothing for the newspapers to report about. Only this week, a brief scan through the Chinese newspapers reveals that senior officials from the Inner Mongolian dairy producer, the Yili Corporation have been detained on suspicion of embezzlement, that the retired head of the Shenzhen Petrochemical Group is also on trial for acts of economic crime leading to company losses of more than 2 billion RMB (US$ 242 million), and that the boss of the Guangdong Provincial Poverty Relief and Economic Development Corporation has been sentenced to death for stealing millions in public funding.

Many of the average corruption cases involve aging officials approaching retirement and feeling that their efforts have gone entirely unrewarded, which is why the government of Zhejiang Province have taken the unprecedented step of rewarding those who retire with an entirely clean record. According to the headlines, a pilot county in Hangzhou will pay 300,000 RMB (US$ 36,200) to those public servants who retire unsullied, but the actual plan isn't quite so radical. The new wave of junior bureaucrats will now have to pay a proportion of their uninspiring salaries into a special insurance fund, and their dividend will be cut each time they breach the regulations.

The government would have us believe that more efforts are being made to uproot corruption throughout the country with a variety of 'strike-hard' campaigns and harsh sentencing, and indeed, the Audit Commission appears to have been given more powers this year in an effort to crack down on the thousands of local government officials who siphon money away from poverty relief and education funds or charities in order to purchase motorbikes, luxury homes for their mistresses, or plane tickets to their Swiss bank accounts.

According to a celebrated report submitted by the Audit Commission to the National People's Congress in June, an investigation into just 50 counties revealed that out of 2.757 billion RMB (US$ 333 million) disbursed to help out poor farmers, 495 million RMB (almost 18%) was misused or embezzled. The funds had apparently been spent on cars and property investments.

50 counties are, of course, a mere fraction of the total, and one wonders what the auditors might have come up with if their remit had extended to Beijing or Shanghai. Hundreds of very low-level officials ought to be sentenced as a result of the report, and thousands of others should be worrying about their positions, but six months later, only one of the officials exposed – the general manager of the Beijing Power Supply Company - has been brought to justice.

The stories presented by the Commission to the NPC demonstrated how shameless many local government officials have become. In the small and largely unremarkable city of Wuchuan in the unfashionable southwestern end of Guangdong Province, the local educational bureau squandered 6 million RMB (US$ 725,000) on meals and banquets every day over 18 months, which amounts to over 10,000 RMB (US$ 1,210) a day. The head of the bureau, one Su Liqi, was said to have embezzled about 760,000 RMB (US$ 92,000) from the school and teacher funds. After buying two luxury Toyotas he never showed his face at the bureau again.

A local school was awarded 30,000 RMB (US$3,600) in funds from the government. Almost immediately after the money had arrived, officials from the local education bureau had appeared at the gates to claim expenses on 30 dinner receipts, each with a value of 1,000 RMB (US$121) each. The school, of course, didn't have a penny left.

But by allowing corruption to be reported, Beijing is trying to send out a clear message that the misappropriation and misuse of public money is a violation of central government directives, and – more fundamentally - that the bad guys are to be found not in Zhongnanhai but in the boardrooms of China's large-scale state-owned enterprises and in thousands of local bureaucracies.

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