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UPDATED: January 19, 2012 NO. 4 JANUARY 26, 2012
Tightening the Reins
New corruption patterns and more crafty offenders pose a stern test for China's anti-graft efforts
By Li LI


CORRUPTION FIGHTERS: He Guoqiang (center front), Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China, meets with participants of a training session for new chiefs of the Party's local disciplinary watchdogs in Beijing on January 11 (HUANG JINGWEN) 

A total of 4,843 Chinese officials above the county head level were punished for disciplinary infractions in 2011 and cases involving 777 of these officials have been transferred to judicial departments. These figures were released by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Party's top anti-graft watchdog, on January 6.

According to the CCDI, several provincial-level officials were transferred to judicial departments for further investigation and punishment in 2011.

Among these senior officials under investigation is former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, who was sacked in February 2010 allegedly for "serious disciplinary violations." In a report released last December, investigators have also accused him of being chiefly responsible for a high-speed train crash near Wenzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, on July 23, 2011, which left 40 dead and 191 injured. Beijing-based The Economic Observer newspaper said that Liu allegedly had taken around 822 million yuan ($130.5 million) in kickbacks over years on contracts linked to the construction of high-speed rail links.

From July 2009 to November 2011 disciplinary watchdogs of the CPC uncovered more than 20,000 corruption cases involving land use, transportation, railway, hydropower and urban infrastructure building projects.

Land disputes, which have been a flashpoint for conflict in recent years, were closely monitored last year. Cui Shaopeng, spokesman for the CCDI, said that around 1,480 cases of illegal land appropriation and demolition were handled in 2011, and 509 people involved were held accountable.

Transparent spending

In 2011, for the first time, almost all of the departments of the Chinese Central Government publicized their 2010 and 2011 spending on government-funded overseas travel, receptions and official cars upon receiving an order issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, in May.

The unprecedented practice of enlarging public scrutiny of government expenditure is believed to boost China's anti-graft campaigns in the long run as corrupt officials often misuse public funds to finance lavish international sightseeing tours, extravagant banquets and karaoke sessions, and use government cars for private purposes.

Some local governments, such as those of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in southern Guangdong Province, quickly followed suit by publicizing their expenses on these items.

While hailing the significant step toward greater government transparency, media outlets complained about the difficulty of verifying and analyzing the figures that were made public and called for more detailed explanation of the expenses as well as other government budgetary information.

There has long been a close link between opaque government spending and corruption. According to a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) on December 23, 2011, the problem of government departments and public institutions holding "little coffers" is still on the rise despite the progress in the accounting and auditing environment in China. "Little coffers" refer to funds, securities and assets that should be but are not listed in the account books of Party and government departments in accordance with the law.

The National Audit Office said in June 2011 that 82 government departments were found to have illegally kept 414 million yuan ($63.7 million) for unauthorized use by means such as misappropriating income or fabricating expenses.

The CASS report says that "little coffers" have become corrupt officials' major means of financing their decadent lifestyles.

"The 'little coffers' have bred corruption and poisoned the ethical standards of Party members and government officials. They have also become a major source of public complaints during anti-corruption campaigns," said Gao Peiyong, Director of the Institute of Finance and Trade Economics under the CASS.

Gao suggested that in order to eliminate these off-book accounts, government branches and public institutions should be prohibited from charging for any of their services and their expenditure should be fully covered by public funds.

Greater challenges

The CASS report makes public the results of a 7,500-sample survey on the public's attitudes toward the government's anti-corruption initiatives. About 75.8 percent of respondents said that there has been no effective supervisory mechanism to check the use of power by local Party and government chiefs.

According to the report, in some areas in China, "as many as one third of officials being removed for corruption held top local posts."

In one notorious case, Li Yinkui, former Party chief of Fengqiu County, Henan Province, was found to have accepted 1,575 bribes worth more than 12 million yuan ($1.8 million) in total, over the course of seven years.

The report also reveals that the flow and integration of resources, capital, cultures and information around the globe has cultivated cross-border corruption. Increasingly bribes are no longer given in cash, but using harder-to-trace approaches.

In the meantime, more and more corruption cases involve groups rather than individuals. Last October, four former officials from a mineral product taxation bureau in Leiyang City, Hunan Province, were sentenced to imprisonment on corruption charges. It's reported one seventh of the bureau's 770 employees were found to be involved in separate corruption cases.

Some of the high-profile corruption cases handled in recent years feature low-ranking officials.

Li Huabo, a section director at a county finance bureau in central Jiangxi Province, allegedly fled to Canada last February after embezzling 94 million yuan ($14.9 million) from funds for upgrading farmland and building reservoirs.

In November 2011, Luo Yaping, former head of a land sub-bureau in a district of Fushun, a city in northeastern Liaoning Province, was executed for abusing her power over land development and compensation. She managed to accumulate a fortune in bribes and embezzled compensation totaling 145 million yuan ($23 million).

In April 2010, Hao Pengjun, former Party chief of the Coalmine Bureau of Puxian County, Shanxi Province, was jailed for 20 years for graft and tax evasion after amassing 305 million yuan ($48.4 million) in ill-gotten gains.

"The reason why both high-ranking and low-ranking officials manage to embezzle large sums of money from the public treasury is that many of our systems have loopholes," said Lin Zhe, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee. Lin said that officials' personal assets declaration system and annual performance appraisal system needed to be perfected and strictly implemented in order to curb corruption.

According to the survey conducted by the CASS, ineffective protection of corruption whistleblowers has hampered anti-graft initiatives. Only 12.5 percent of respondents said they are willing to use their real names when reporting officials' wrongdoings due to fears of retaliation and as many as 42.3 percent said that retaliation against informers is very likely.

However, about 60 percent of the surveyed people are confident the fight against corruptions will yield positive results in the next five to 10 year, and a similar portion of officials, professionals and business managers believe that corruption can be curbed.

Clean elections

On January 9, President Hu Jintao, also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, called for strict discipline to be maintained within the Party. His speech was seen as a stern warning against corruption amid elections to Party committees at all levels.

"The CPC will tighten supervision on the whole procedure of electing and promoting officials and will improve transparency," Hu said at a plenary session of the CCDI. "The Party will improve the education of senior and chief officials in its newly elected organs. Newly elected members of CPC committees should stick to the principles of putting people first and serving the people."

The elections of CPC committees from township to provincial level and deputies to the Party's 18th National Congress started in 2011. The CPC congress will be held in the second half of this year and elect a new Party central committee. Deputies to the 12th National People's Congress, the country's top legislature that will start its five-year tenure in March 2013, will also be elected this year.

With more and more public attention focused on these elections, wrongdoings in the process have been exposed by the media and on the Internet.

Zhang Bingsheng, former Mayor of Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, was sacked last February for disrupting local elections. In another case, Hu Jianyong, former Party Secretary of Yudu County, Jiangxi Province, was removed from his post last July after being found to slander other candidates in elections.

According to Xinhua News Agency, authorities have designated more than 73,000 inspectors across the country to supervise the elections. In 2011, supervisory bodies received 846 reports of election fraud nationwide, of which 52 were verified, with 73 violators being punished.

 Email us at: lili@bjreview.com

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