Dark days for China's whistleblowers
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - It seems trite these days to talk about Beijing's perpetual anti-corruption struggle. But amid an economic downturn and as more cases come to the public's attention, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) failure to crack down on increasingly rampant official corruption has again become the number one public concern.
An online opinion poll conducted by state-run website chinanews.com before the March 5-13 annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) found that 75.5% of 48,341 respondents ranked corruption and cleaner government as their top concern. With a disparity in wealth distribution coming second
at 69.1%. In similar surveys over the past three years, the top concerns were either housing, inflation or stock prices, with corruption ranking relatively low.
Since 1998 (if not earlier), the CCP power center has launched one nationwide campaign after another on corruption, but graft levels only seem to rise after each one. As a Chinese saying puts it: "The law is strong but the outlaws are 10 times stronger."
According to figures from the Supreme People's Procuratorate, from January 2003 to November 2007, public prosecutors across the country dealt with 178,405 corruption cases involving 207,935 officials, of whom 13,790 were county-level or higher-ranking officials. The amount of serious cases, each involving taking bribes of over 100,000 yuan (about US$15,000) or embezzling public funds of over 1 million yuan, has risen from 46.8% in 2003 to 58.1% in the first 11 months of 2007.
In an earlier NPC session, Cao Jianmin, chief of the Supreme Procuratorate, said 33,546 corruption cases were under investigation for 2008, involving 41,179 officials. The figure is only slightly less than the average of 35,681 cases and 41,587 officials investigated each year in the 2003-07 period. However, the number of serious cases has soared to 20,805, representing 62% of the total.
A survey by the state-owned newspaper Legal Daily on officials convicted for corruption has also found that the average age of offenders has dropped from 53.3 in 2007 to 50.8 in 2008, suggesting that officials are now becoming involved in corruption earlier in their careers.
Fully aware that fighting graft is a matter of life and death for the party and its rule, Chinese President Hu Jintao has repeatedly pledged to step up crackdowns. In recent years, more anti-graft bodies have been set up and more channels opened for the public to report suspected corruption cases. Fearful that the global financial crisis may spark public discontent, which could threaten social stability, at the NPC session, Premier Wen Jiabao, Cao and the country's top judge all vowed to make new efforts, including enhancing public supervision, to fight corruption.
But the Chinese public remains hesitant to tip off authorities on official corruption, despite their growing anger at the issue.
A survey published last week by the national newspaper China Youth Daily found that only 40.1% of respondents felt obliged to report suspected corruption, while some 31% did not. Some 36.4% of the people polled said they did not think their tip-offs would be taken seriously, while 34.9% were worried about repercussions.
Fear of retribution is a major concern for whistleblowers. "Nine of the top 10 anti-graft fighters in the past three decades have faced retaliation," He Zengke, director of the Institute of Contemporary Marxism under the CCP's Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, told China Youth Daily. He did not give details on who the top 10 anti-graft fighters were, or what retribution had been meted out to them, but there are plenty of cases of informants being killed, jailed or attacked after tipping off the authorities.
In May 2002, Li Wenjuan, a civil servant with Anshan Office of State Revenue in Liaoning province, reported suspected irregularities in tax collection and accounting to the party's Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) - the party's top anti-graft watchdog - and the General Administration of Taxation. After the taxation office sent an investigation team to Anshan, Li was first removed to a local branch and then one year later fired, though after the CCDI's intervention she was re-instated.
However, in September 2004, Li was sacked again after she was arrested by Anshan police and sent to a "education through labor" camp on charges of "slandering" an official on the Internet. She was released after two years and has said she "would not dare" to report corruption again.
In January 2007, the magazine Countryside, Agriculture and Farmers reported that Yingquan district in Fuyang city of Anhui province had built a lavish office complex which was a full imitation of the United States' Capitol and had became known locally as the "White House". Despite a central government ban on luxury government offices and the fact that Yingquan is a poor district in a poor province. The average annual income of farmers in Yingquan is about 2,000 yuan.
Fuyang party chief Zhang Zhi'an suspected the magazine had been tipped off by Li Gufu, the manager of an investment company in Yingquan's district government. In August, Li was arrested by local police after they searched his house and found reports about Zhang's suspected corruption. Li was later prosecuted on charges of taking bribes and profiteering. In March 2008, Li was found dead in his jail cell, just a few hours before a scheduled meeting with his lawyer. Police said he had hung himself, which failed to convince many people, and three months later Zhang was sacked.
On February 12, 2007, on a street in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, Jin Gang, an employee from a local property development company, was attacked by three men with knives. "You must have mistaken me with another person," Jin screamed. "No mistake, it is you who are our target," one of the attackers replied. Jin's left hand was chopped off. An investigation later found the three had been hired by a son of Jin's boss, Yang Zhixiang, to attack Jin after he reported that Yang had obtained banks loans with false mortgages and had embezzled state assets.
Yang was also a member of the Hunan provincial committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and deputy secretary general of Hunan Buddhist Association. Despite being the key suspect, police later released him over a lack of evidence.
According to statistics from the Supreme Procuratorate, on average less than 500 witnesses or informants were killed or severely injured each year in the 1990s, but that figure now averages more than 1,200 annually. So it is no wonder the public are not keen to report corruption to anti-graft bodies.
The China Youth Daily survey showed that the public prefers reporting corruption on the Internet (35.5%) or through traditional media (31.3%), to reporting to CCDI (17.2%), public prosecutors (11.4%), higher-level governments (3.3%) or police (0.5%).
He Zengke blamed this on the lack of legal protection for witnesses and informants, and has appealed for better legislation.
True as this may be, laws are not worth the paper they are written on if they cannot be implemented. There are ample laws and regulations regarding official corruption, but right now corrupt officials seem to simply be filling the gap left by fallen comrades.