The worst system corrupts its best officials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am

For centuries, West Lake, in the centre of Hangzhou, Zhejiang, has been universally recognised as one of China's most iconic spots, famous not only for its picturesque landscape but also for its rich historical and cultural heritage. It has been a favourite holiday destination for ordinary mainlanders and the leaders alike, including Mao Zedong, who used to live at a state guest house on the lake for weeks, escaping from the harsh winters in Beijing.

So it should come as no surprise that, riding the nationwide property boom in recent years, the real estate around the lake is now the most expensive in China.

Equally, it should come as no surprise that Xu Maiyong, formerly a vice-mayor of Hangzhou and a principal official in charge of urban development in the lake area, went on trial earlier this month for massive corruption involving property development. But Xu's case has become the talk of the internet because of its excessive nature, earning him a notorious nickname as 'Triple Plenty Xu' - referring to his collection of money, flats and women.

According to a Xinhua report at the end of the three-day trial, Xu was accused of soliciting and accepting bribes totalling 160 million yuan (HK$190 million) from 14 companies and individuals from 1995 to 2009, and embezzling 53 million yuan while he headed the Hong Kong-based commercial company controlled by the city government.

Since his arrest in April 2009, many leading property developers in Hangzhou have been questioned by anti-graft investigators, but none of them appeared to be arrested for bribery, an offence which carries a heavy jail sentence.

According to local media reports, Xu and his wife also owned 'plenty of' luxury flats in Hangzhou.

He also maintained intimate relationships with 'plenty of women' - who number in double digits, according to several mainland media reports. Most of them reportedly worked for the West Lake district government, of which Xu was the chief from 2002 to 2008. According to one report, following Xu's arrest, the anti-graft investigators started to question women cadres in the district government, making all the good-looking women there the target of gossip.

As usual with corrupt officials, their wives are also implicated. Xu's wife, Qi Jiqiu, went on trial last Monday for accepting bribes and laundering money totalling 41.3 million yuan.

Given the excessive nature of his case, Xu is likely to receive a harsh punishment, such as the death sentence with a two-year suspension, which is usually commuted to life imprisonment with good behaviour. It is interesting to note that until recent years a corrupt official who accepted bribes totalling 10 million yuan or more was likely to be executed as a warning to others.

Over the past few years, however, mainland courts have largely refrained from executing corrupt officials even though the bribes they accept seem to get larger, easily running into several tens of million or even hundreds of million yuan. One cynical explanation is that there are just too many corrupt officials out there, and China, which already stands accused of carrying out the world's record number of executions, would set even higher records. It therefore feels obliged, so the theory goes, to keep corrupt officials off death row.

But there is little doubt that the mainland's anti-graft officials will use Xu's case as an example of the central government's determination to fight corruption. Indeed, a day hardly passes without reports of corrupt officials being punished or authorities stepping up anti-corruption efforts to root out corruption. Last week, a court in Henan sentenced Wang Qinghai - formerly a vice-mayor of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital - to life imprisonment for accepting bribes worth 17 million yuan. As with Xu, most of Wang's bribes came from property developers.

But similarities do not end there. By going through Xu's and Wang's records and those of senior government officials jailed for corruption, one can easily find that they were the cream of the bureaucracy - smart, hard working, showing talent for leadership, and capable of undertaking reforms. But as they worked in an environment where they enjoyed big power over money and resources with little meaningful scrutiny, the temptation of making money for themselves is too big and too easy to ignore.

Last Monday at a meeting with a group of foreign executives, Premier Wen Jiabao compared corruption to 'cancer cells' and again urged a redoubling of efforts to fight corruption. He quoted Deng Xiaoping as saying 'a good system will prevent bad people from achieving their ill ends, but a bad system will make it even easier for a good person to commit a wrongdoing'. As Xu's case has proved, corruption of the best is always the worst.

I would like to end the column on a lighter but also serious note. Over the past few years, mainland media have reported stories in which people in residential compounds in Beijing and other major cities saw strange chalk symbols discreetly marked on the wall above, below or next to doors, or even on doors. Initially the police were baffled at those strange symbols, not unlike those from the famous short story The Adventure of the Dancing Men, by Arthur Conan Doyle, although they suspected those symbols were probably marked by thieves casing possible targets.

Earlier this month, police in Beijing's Tongzhou district announced they had cracked the codes marked at some residential complexes under their jurisdiction (see graphic). But they did not say whether the symbols found in other cities had the same meaning.