Whistle-blowers should be encouraged

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 August, 2004, 12:00am

The battle against corruption on the mainland can be won only if people are prepared to expose and oppose graft whenever they encounter it.

Whistle-blowers, therefore, have an important role to play and should be entitled, at the very least, to have their complaints taken seriously. Sadly, the reality is often very different.

A Communist Party cadre in Fujian last week took the unusual step of going public with allegations of official corruption. His action has been described as courageous; it remains to be seen what the consequences will be.

Huang Jingao, party secretary of Lianjiang county, had a depressingly familiar story to tell. For six years, he said, he had fought against graft. One of his main allegations is that local officials colluded with businessmen over a corrupt construction project that led to residents being driven from their land.

This is precisely the sort of conduct the central government has pledged to root out - and with good reason. The allegations should have been investigated promptly. But, as is so often the case, this was not the response Mr Huang received from provincial officials.

He says his complaints to superiors were not welcomed. Instead, he faced obstruction and opposition. So he opted for a bold and unorthodox course of action - he took his story to the media.

His decision to take such a risky step in itself suggests there is a growing belief in the power of the mainland media and of public opinion. And the initial reaction to his move was positive.

Mr Huang's detailed account of his experiences was published on the website of the official People's Daily. It understandably attracted great public interest and was carried - as well as commented on - by many newspapers.

But the response of the officials in the Fujian provincial government does not inspire confidence. They denied the allegations, as they are entitled to do. But the officials went on to attack Mr Huang for making 'a grave political error'. According to them, his actions showed a lack of political awareness and party discipline.

They are missing the point.

If corruption is to be tackled, then people must be encouraged to speak out. They need to feel that they will be protected and their complaints will be properly investigated.

This is not a question of being disloyal to the party: its credibility will be boosted if it shows that complaints of misconduct are taken seriously.

Certainly, such allegations may embarrass the officials concerned. But this is no excuse for ignoring them. It is important that every effort is made to establish where the truth lies.

Mr Huang makes serious complaints of criminal conduct. His allegations deserve to be treated accordingly. They require an objective investigation by officials from outside the province - preferably by a court.

The complaints should also be dealt with in a transparent manner. The corrupt fear exposure to the light of day. This has been recognised by Auditor-General Li Jinhua, who noted that transparency was one of the key weapons against corruption. It is therefore disappointing that the Central Publicity Department has blocked coverage of Mr Huang's case.

There can be no underestimating the scale of the battle the mainland faces in tackling corruption. Mr Li's report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress last month highlighted widespread embezzlement and diversion of public funds among ministries and commissions under the State Council. The sum involved was a staggering 1.42 billion yuan.

But the problem is most difficult to tackle in the provinces, where local officials hold so much power.

Premier Wen Jiabao has rightly described the task as an arduous one. But it would be made much easier if whistle-blowers were encouraged to believe that their complaints would be heard.