City where crime used to pay

Chongqing confronts its “bribe tribe”, while the rest of China watches

City where crime used to pay

Oil boss Chen: liked spending lavishly in bars, but is now behind them

Look through corruption cases in Western countries, and you will often find references to the behaviour of “a few bad apples”.

Right or wrong, the inference is clear enough; that a small group of individuals may have behaved corruptly, but that they remain a minority.

So the first thing to do is to get these rotten apples out of the barrel; there isn’t thought to be much wrong with the barrel itself.

The Chinese equivalent of the bad apple analogy is to talk of how bad horses can spoil the herd, or how a single mouse dropping will spoil a whole pot of soup.

But the nature of the problem is different too. From the China Daily, for instance, there is a recognition that it goes far beyond individual cases. If the authorities want to make genuine progress against graft, the newspaper says, they will have to break open the “bribe tribe” culture that supports it.

Quite how pervasive this culture can become is clear again this month, in the ongoing anti-graft campaign against an interlocking network of businessmen, politicians and gangland bosses in Chongqing.

The initiative, known locally as ‘the campaign against dark forces’ is getting a lot of coverage. It helps that (in the best Hollywood tradition) it features an incorruptible police chief, with an underworld price on his head.

But it has also surprised in the scale of its ambition. There have been 1,500 arrests so far, with three billionaires, 50 government officials, six district police chiefs and a number of local and national political representatives amongst the haul. Wen Qiang, the chief of the Chongqing Judicial Bureau, is also a prize catch. He has been detained on allegations of providing a “protective umbrella” to local triad groups.

For more seasoned observers the campaign is one of a long line of efforts that translate better into print than into practice. If you want to deal seriously with graft, they argue, you need proper institutional checks and balances, as well as the scrutiny of a feisty media and an independent anti-corruption agency. But organising all of this takes time, resources and deep political will. In fact, it’s a hornets’ nest of a job. Start poking around, and you risk getting very badly stung.

Others counter that the recent efforts may be a little more determined than usual. After all, clean governance is a key theme at the upcoming meetings of the Central Committee (the 300-member senior Communist Party elite) in September, and Hu Jintao is expected to announce the more significant successes in the anti-graft effort during the national 60th birthday celebrations in October.

A series of criminal cases this year has also been reaching higher up into the political hierarchy. In July, Chen Tonghai, former chairman of national petroleum heavyweight Sinopec, received a life sentence for taking bribes. Li Peiying, former chief of Capital Airports Holding Company, was not quite as fortunate, and was executed at the beginning of August.

Two weeks ago, Kang Rixin, the head of the government’s nuclear power programme at CNNC, was also hauled in for investigation. Kang is suspected of “grave violations of discipline,” a standard Communist Party term referring to graft and abuse of power, says the Xinhua news agency.

Why would the government be stepping up the pace in this way? It’s hard to tell. There is a lot of cash sloshing through the economy at the moment (courtesy of the government stimulus plan, and the plentiful credit on offer from the state-owned banks) so Beijing might be keen to present a harder line.

Perhaps the growing role of the internet is having an influence too.

Photos of government apparatchiks wearing luxury wristwatches, or puffing on cigarette brands priced well beyond their pay grades, continue to excite online interest. Party seniors are said to be “clearly aware” that corruption at a senior level has “seriously affected the party’s image,” reports Outlook Weekly.

But at the very least, the Chongqing campaign – and others like it – might put a stop to the most brazen under-the-table activity.

Previously, some senior state officials have behaved as if they were untouchable. Former Sinopec chairman Chen himself (in happier times) was once quoted in similar mood: “The one or two million yuan I spend in socialising each month is a piece of cake compared with the 20 billion yuan my firm brings to the state in taxes. You can’t make money unless you know how to spend it.”

His prison sentence will bring an end to such an active social life.

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