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TIME Asia Asiaweek Asia Now TIME Asia story

OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14

How Serious is the Campaign?
In the end, it's all about connections

When Things Go Wrong: The horrific tale of one woman's disfigurement and abortive quest for justice highlights how official misconduct continues to plague society at every level
Muckraker: The journalist who broke Wu Fang's story

Workers at a textile factory in southern China complain to the local mayor that the managers are stealing money from the plant. The skeptical official, Li Gaocheng, investigates and uncovers a vast scam that involves even his own wife. He faces a dilemma—to squash the investigation, or push ahead and see his wife arrested. The plot of the film Choice Between Life and Death—which has been seen by more than 12 million people in China since being released in June as part of a state anti-corruption drive—is stark. Mayor Li, of course, never wavers, and his wife and all the corrupt managers are arrested and given long prison sentences.

COVER: When Things Go Wrong
The horrific tale of one woman's disfigurement and abortive quest for justice highlights how official misconduct continues to plague society at every level
Don't Go There: The fight against corruption has its limits
Muckraker: The journalist who broke Wu Fang's story

TIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000
TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

Highs and lows from the Sydney Games

INDONESIA: Doctor's Excuse
Suharto is ruled medically unfit for trial, raising the possibility that he may never be held responsible for alleged misdeeds

JAPAN: Up in Smoke
On the eve of a big international conference, the country's anti-cigarette activists try to rally against the tobacco lobby
Taking on Tobacco: Asia starts kicking some butts

JAPAN: Where Harpoons Fly
Whale hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's a venerable way of life

TRAVEL WATCH: Driving Yourself Around the Bend in Bali

But does art really imitate life? On the surface, China indeed seems serious about fighting corruption, and heads are starting to roll. Investigations have been launched this year into almost 23,000 cases of possible corruption. The former vice-chairman of the national legislature, Cheng Kejie, and the former vice-governor of Jiangxi province, Hu Changqing, have been executed in separate bribery cases. More than 100 officials are on trial over a $10 billion smuggling scandal in Xiamen, the biggest corruption case so far to reach China's courts. Last week the former deputy governor of Hubei province, Li Daqiang, was fired for accepting bribes, while the former deputy mayor of Shenzhen, Wang Ju, is currently under investigation for similar offenses. Also last week an inquiry was launched into a foreign-exchange and tax-evasion scam in Guangdong that may turn out to be even bigger than the Xiamen case: a stunning $12.2 billion apparently found its way into the pockets of provincial customs, tax and banking officials and Hong Kong businessmen.

President Jiang Zemin has put himself at the head of the anti-corruption charge. On Jan. 14, he told the Communist Party's corruption watchdog committee: "The more senior the cadre, the more famous the person, the more rigorously cases of violation of discipline and law must be investigated and handled." Yet only a week later Jiang was seen on state-run television strolling alongside Jia Qinglin, a Politburo member and Jiang's handpicked choice as Beijing party boss. Jia's wife Lin Youfang, who ran the largest state-owned import-export firm in Xiamen, had been implicated in that city's massive smuggling scandal. But with Jiang's very public show of support, all talk of Lin being arrested quickly stopped. Even Jiang, many Chinese concluded, was prepared to bend the rules to help out a friend.

High-level connections also reportedly saved the life of Chen Tongqing, the former party secretary of Zhanjiang, a southern coastal city. Chen was sentenced to death in May 1999 for taking bribes, but the sentence was suspended after senior party figures intervened. Such high-level favoritism risks further antagonizing citizens who are fed up with officials helping themselves to public funds. The National Audit Office estimates that $15 billion was embezzled in China last year, more than 1% of the nation's annual economic output. Across the country, social unrest caused by corruption and tax gouging by local officials is increasing, with protests frequently turning violent. Last month farmers in two separate provinces in the path of the Three Gorges Dam project marched on local government headquarters, attacking officials suspected to be lining their pockets with undistributed resettlement money. "The fight against corruption is vital to the very existence of the party and state," says Liu Liying, deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection who is heading the Xiamen investigation.

Top connections don't help everyone. Cheng, the former vice-chairman of the National People's Congress who was executed in September for accepting $4.9 million in bribes, was a protégé of former Premier Li Peng. Li had helped Cheng into the position of governor of Guangxi after they met in 1986; when Li was made chairman of the legislature in 1998 he brought Cheng with him to be his deputy. Another Li protégé, Niu Maosheng, former head of the Ministry of Water Resources, is currently under investigation for allegedly misappropriating flood relief funds. And several officials managing Li's pet project, the Three Gorges Dam, are under investigation for mismanaging resettlement funds for the more than 1 million people the reservoir will displace.

The current Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, is said to be fuming at interference in the Xiamen case. With his hard-nosed attitude toward reform, he knows that in the fight against corruption, China—and the party—face a choice between life and death.

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