China begins crackdown on corruption at the top


BEIJING -- President Jiang Zemin's campaign to stamp out rampant corruption -- and political enemies -- has accelerated with the announcement that a Politburo member is being investigated for corruption and that another high-ranking official has been posthumously stripped of his titles for embezzling $37 million.

The moves come as the party conducts one of the largest shake-ups in its history, with thousands of party members losing their jobs.

But until Tuesday, the anti-corruption campaign seemed to be bypassing top leaders.

Then, the party's disciplinary committee acknowledged what many had suspected: that Chen Xitong, who as a Politburo member and Beijing party secretary had been one of the dozen or so most powerful figures in China, was under investigation for corruption.

Mr. Chen resigned as Beijing's party boss in April after a vice mayor of Beijing, Wang Baosen, shot himself rather than face an investigation into his financial dealings and sexual dalliances.

Besides confirming that Mr. Chen was under investigation, the committee released an unusually detailed report of Mr. Wang's financial wrongdoing and his private life, at the same time posthumously kicking him out of the party and taking away his titles.

The three-month investigation concluded that he embezzled more than $37 million for himself, relatives, friends and mistresses.

"During his term of office, Wang abused his power, embezzled, squandered and diverted public funds . . . living a depraved life," the report said. "He squandered without restraint the public funds, building luxury villas, buying high-grade apartments and booking hotel suites for a long time for pleasure-seeking."

At least $13 million of the embezzled money is unlikely to be recovered; it was diverted to Mr. Wang's younger brother and others friends, who lost it in investments.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official saying that Mr. Wang's actions "brought extremely bad damage to the prestige of the party and the state."

Many Chinese applauded the criticism as proof that the party was openly confronting corruption, which is probably the most corrosive threat to the party's authority.

After placing a virtual news blackout on Mr. Wang's suicide, the party decision to admit that Mr. Wang had indeed committed BTC crimes and that Mr. Chen probably did likewise was also seen as a sign that big fish were finally facing justice.

"It's great that we kicked out a rotten egg like Wang," said a senior member of the Public Security Bureau. "It's like when you got rid of President Nixon. It shows the system works."

Others, however, said that Mr. Wang and Mr. Chen were undoubtedly corrupt but may have been singled out because they were disloyal to President Jiang. With leader Deng Xiaoping ill, Mr. Jiang and his party rivals are vying for power through the anti-corruption campaign -- and by hounding enemies.

Mr. Chen, for example, is widely believed to be an ally of Premier Li Peng, who could challenge Mr. Jiang for control of China when Mr. Deng dies.

Both Mr. Chen and Mr. Li are closely associated with the 1989 massacre of hundreds of demonstrators near Beijing's Tiananmen Square. And Mr. Chen's downfall may mean that Mr. Jiang is willing to reassess the massacre.

But President Jiang, who also serves as the party's general secretary, has been staking his reputation as Mr. Deng's heir on the anti-corruption campaign. In recent weeks, the party has said that more top officials are falling to the campaign.

Last week, for example, a national graft investigator said the campaign had targeted 779 mid-level officials during the first five months of the year, including 39 who lead national departments or bureaus.

Prosecutors handled 12,678 economic criminal cases during those five months. The number of major cases -- defined as involving more than $120,000 -- totaled 465, more than double the figure during the same period in 1994.

The sense that the anti-corruption campaign is part of a larger effort by the party to regain control over China's vast hinterland has been bolstered by a "rectification campaign," intended to weed out ineffective and corrupt party leaders at the local level.

More than 450,000 party officials have been sent from cities to grass-roots party cells, to rebuild the party's crumbling organization in the countryside. About 800,000 party branches have been reorganized in the past eight months, according to the Xinhua news agency.

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