After 100 years, corruption still a major problem in China

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 6, 2011 

LANGFANG, China — It was a juicy story: a tangled web of corruption and betrayal involving a local Communist Party leader and a businessman in a village less than 20 miles from Beijing.

A reporter from the state-run Global Times newspaper followed up with a round of calls, including one to a police officer.

"If you guys report any further ... we will beat you until your legs are broken," the officer said, according to an item last month in the newspaper's English-language edition.

It wasn't the only threat police allegedly issued in the case.

The day before the story ran, someone from the Langfang public security bureau, which oversees the police, reportedly called a lawyer who'd gotten involved in the case. After reciting the lawyer's address and license plate number, the caller said he had intimate knowledge of criminal gangs in Beijing who could "take care" of him.

As the 100th anniversary of the revolt that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China passes next week, Beijing's central leadership increasingly finds itself trying to clamp down on local officials who run their turf like mafia dons.

Those concerns might well have been familiar to officials in the teetering, final days of the Qing Dynasty, which collapsed after an uprising that began in central Hubei province on October 10, 1911.

At the time, a boy emperor named Puyi sat in Beijing. The powerful Empress Dowager Cixi had died three years before. Unrest was spreading as the empire crumbled.

The Communist Party today isn't in any obvious danger of losing control of the country. But even as China's economic growth of the past three decades has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, allegations of official greed and lawlessness have become commonplace, much to the worry of the central government.

The characters in the Langfang tale each represent in their own way the failure of China's institutions to function effectively when confronted by the interests of party officials or their friends. It's a system that runs largely on connections and influence, and, when conflicts arise, offers little comfort to those who have neither.

There's the local businessman, Dong Yuyou, who at one time cultivated a cozy relationship with the party leader of Bei Jianta, a small village adjoining Langfang.

That official, Bei Jianta Party Secretary Liu Guangfu, was later accused by Dong of looting a factory he owned.

Then there's the middleman/fixer whom Dong reached out to because he didn't trust the court system to resolve the dispute.

That man in turn guided Dong to a controversial online journalist and activist whose subsequent posting enraged area leadership.

And, of course, there are the police, and their threats that tried to make it all go away.

CHINA LOOK WARILY AT FALL OF QING DYNASTY

The Chinese press recently has pointed to a series of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, including a film opening and a new museum in central Hubei province. The government placed a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China after the Qing, in Tiananmen Square.

Perhaps owing to a sense of unease with historical echoes, Beijing has explored the 1911 uprising with less depth and fanfare than it did the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in July.

The National Museum of China, for example, has an installation marking the 100th anniversary. To get to it, visitors must walk past "125 Years of Italian Magnificence," a retrospective of the Italian jewelry maker Bulgari, then ride an escalator to the second floor and find a room next to a stand that sells sodas and potato chips.

Inside, the display consists of a collection of calligraphy by the 1911 revolution's leaders.

It's a decidedly modest exhibition for the momentous sweep of events that upended history in the world's most populous nation.

The revolt started in Hubei during October of 1911. The membership list of an anti-Qing group was discovered after a bomb went off in its office, setting off a chain of events that led to rebel troops mutinying. The crisis swept across much of the nation before an assembly of provincial leaders — Beijing hadn't yet fallen — elected Sun Yat-sen that December.

The communists took power some 38 years later, after winning a civil war against the nationalist Kuomintang party, formerly led by Sun.

Among the main lines of Communist propaganda used to rally support against the Kuomintang: Its officials were deeply corrupt.

THE FACTORY SCANDAL BEGINS

Dong Yuyou wore neatly ironed Pierre Cardin jeans, brown leather loafers and an expensive-looking shirt as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Why did he agree in September 2009 to allow someone to take over running his cement factory in Bei Jianta without signing a contract?

The Langfang Fuyuan Cement Co. made up to 1 million yuan a year, about $156,600. Yet, Dong said, he lent it out to Liu Guangfu with no paperwork for just 300,000 yuan annually, some $47,000.

Why?

"Because he's the party secretary of Bei Jianta," Dong said.

To do business, Dong said, he needed good "guanxi" — a term that means relationship or network — with Liu.

"He can make sure the common people don't stand in the way of my business," said Dong, a 41-year-old who was chauffeured to an interview in his black Buick LaCrosse, a car that's seen as a stylish ride in China. "It's the climate these days."

Dong came to regret the decision a year ago, when he learned that Liu had been selling off the factory's equipment. He filed a lawsuit, accusing Liu of theft.

Then on Nov. 2, Dong asked a district branch of the Langfang city public security bureau to charge Liu with illegally seizing his property. He accused Liu of having sold 170,000 yuan worth of equipment, about $26,600. To add insult to injury, Dong told McClatchy, Liu never paid the $47,000 annual rent.

Reached by phone, Liu said simply that, "I didn't do that."

"For me, this is a personal matter between Dong and myself," Liu told McClatchy, shortly before hanging up. "It's pointless for you to ask me for any details."

A Langfang district court ruled that Liu should restore the equipment he'd "dismantled," though it said it couldn't verify the company's prior assets, and return management rights to Dong, according to a court summary supplied to McClatchy by the city government, which said the ruling was handed down in January.

By Dong's account, Liu ignored the court's decision and padlocked the cement factory's gates with the implicit message that it's still under his control. The factory remains closed.

A HARMONIOUS FUTURE?

Compared with the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, and the stretch of imperial rulers back to 221 B.C., the Chinese Communist Party's time has been remarkably brief. For now, it's impossible to predict what shape its legacy will take.

The party is infamous for its insistence through propaganda and hard-line tactics on the need to build a "harmonious society."

While that may sound like authoritarian double talk, the phrase appears to reflect serious angst about how to address the expanding distance between China's economic gains and social inequalities.

In 2006, the Communist Party's central committee emphasized "harmonious society" as a main theme of governance. Official sources have noted that 2006 saw some 90,000 "mass incidents" in China, an inexact term for outbursts of discontent that encompasses everything from very small squabbles to citywide riots.

And though such protests were directed almost exclusively at local governments, the tumult was more than Beijing would prefer.

A diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in China during October 2006, made public by WikiLeaks last month, paraphrased an official from the nation's State Council Development Research Center as saying that "Chinese leaders are obsessed with internal stability and spend the vast majority of their time working on this issue."

The government no longer publicly releases annual counts of "mass incidents." In 2010, reports carried by the Chinese press said that the 2006 number had doubled.

Meanwhile, a raft of ongoing scandals suggests that political and business leadership is, at the least, drifting away from the general population.

A few examples:

  • Amid mounting concerns about China's food safety, Chinese media wrote a story in May that said a tall fence kept the public way from vegetables grown organically for customs officials in Beijing. Similar practices were documented in other parts of the country.
  • In July, a deadly crash that involved two high-speed trains in coastal Zhejiang province led to national soul-searching about the high costs of corruption and mismanagement. The former railways minister had been dismissed from his post earlier in the year after allegations that he'd pocketed kickbacks of at least $122 million.
  • There was an outcry in September when a tourist to Beijing was mistaken for a petitioner — typically a Chinese who travels to the capital to file complaints about local government misconduct — and dragged from his hotel room by a Beijing security firm hired by the petitioning office in Henan province. The security firm's men beat the tourist severely before dumping him, unconscious, with pants torn to rags, on the side of a street.
The practice of seeking mercy in Beijing is a holdover from imperial times. As with feudal-era hopes for a benevolent emperor's intervention in local injustices, today's petitioners rarely find help.

DONG LOOKS FOR HELP

Unable to solve his problems in court, Dong Yuyou said, he sought other ways to push forward. A fellow businessman in Langfang had a relationship with reporters in Beijing and offered to make introductions. Maybe, he suggested, they would take an interest.

In a conversation with McClatchy, the man asked that neither his identity nor the name of the company he owns be made public.

"What good can that bring me?" said the man, who chewed pumpkin seeds as he directed two assistants to keep pouring tea and occasionally run errands. "I can live in a peaceful environment if nobody knows about me."

The businessman connected Dong with Zhu Ruifeng, a 42-year-old online anti-corruption activist and digital journalist with a reputation for muckraking. Tellingly, Zhu has his website, People's Supervision Network, registered in Hong Kong, placing it further from the grasp of Beijing authorities. When he's asked for credentials, Zhu is given to quoting Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution. That passage ostensibly gives citizens the right to criticize government departments and officials.

Both parties insist that Dong only recounted his travails to Zhu, who found them intriguing, and that no payment changed hands — a key assertion, since allegations of "fake" or "black" journalism, in which reporters demand cash for coverage, or for no coverage, are common in China. Zhu had been accused previously by a Chinese newspaper as having received payoff money to delete a damaging piece about a government agency, but he supplied McClatchy with a copy of the court decision in a lawsuit he filed, and won, against the newspaper. (The Beijing court involved confirmed the case number of the document.)

Zhu's Aug. 17 online story was a sharply confrontational piece that, among other things, contained descriptions and license plate numbers of cars that Liu Guangfu and his immediate family allegedly have owned, including a black Porsche Cayenne and an Audi A6.

Zhu wrote that through Liu's position as Communist Party chief of Bei Jianta village, population 1,400, "Liu has turned himself from a tattered-clothed peasant into a rich man owning eight luxurious villas ... and eight luxurious cars."

Dong was quoted as saying that in deference to Liu's unquestionable influence in the area, he'd sent 200,000 yuan, about $31,250, and a Mazda 6 car to Liu's daughter's wedding.

In two days of reporting in Bei Jianta, a McClatchy reporter came across no one who directly contradicted Zhu's characterization of Liu.

One 59-year-old woman, a farmer who asked that her name not be printed, said of Liu: "He's very powerful; he's very rich. If you don't do what he says, then. ..." And with that she walked away.

A local hair salon owner named Xing, who was sitting close by, added: "He got rich by taking bribes."

Asked for comment in a subsequent phone call, Liu said that Zhu "is talking nonsense. I would like to confirm with you that I only have one car and that I bought it myself."

Zhu, he said, "is out to set me up." A few moments later, Liu abruptly hung up.

NO ONE NEEDS TO EXPLAIN ANYTHING

Within days of Zhu's story appearing on the Internet, Langfang police brought Dong in for questioning. The deputy director of the Langfang security bureau, Sun Weike, told him that "you have to have the report deleted," Dong said. If that didn't happen, Sun reportedly threatened, Dong would be sent to jail on unrelated charges.

Soon after, a man who identified himself as Sun called Zhu's lawyer, Zhou Ze, to tell him that, "Langfang is very close to Beijing and it's very easy to get things done," according to Zhou's account.

"It was unimaginable that those words would be coming from a deputy police chief," said Zhou, a former law professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences —which has close ties to the Communist Party — who now does legal advocacy work.

Zhou added in his interview with McClatchy: "I think they're very afraid of being exposed; that's why he called me and threatened me."

Contacted by McClatchy for comment on Zhou's account, Sun said, "I don't have any response." He referred McClatchy to the propaganda department of the Langfang security bureau.

McClatchy made multiple calls, took a trip to Langfang and faxed questions to give the bureau an opportunity to set the record straight about Sun's remarks. The result was a short phone conversation with a woman who identified herself only by her surname. "Our leader said that it's not convenient for us to give you an interview," she said.

Like the emperors of old, Sun and those around him apparently don't have to explain themselves.

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