Another rail official goes off the rails, with a new twist

What initially seemed like just another case of corruption tickles the public's fancy with details of academic intrigue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 1:50am

Perhaps it is not surprising that another corruption trial involving a former railways official failed to attract much media attention at first.

After all, we've seen so many officials from the now-defunct Railways Ministry tried lately. Charges that Zhang Shuguang , the agency's former deputy chief engineer and transport bureau chief, took 47 million yuan (HK$59 million) in bribes might not seem all that shocking.

But the public's interest was piqued when The Beijing News said on Thursday that Zhang had confessed to collecting nearly half of the money for two unsuccessful bids to secure a seat on the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Zhang did not say how much he actually ended up spending on the campaigns or whether anyone at the academy took the bait.

Zhang, who pleaded guilty at a one-day trial on Tuesday, told the court he accepted 23 million yuan from three businessmen to finance his bids for a CAS seat. He stood for election in 2007 and 2009, falling seven votes short in the first round and one vote short in the second.

Even after his last attempt failed, he solicited a further five million yuan bribe from one of the businessmen so he could show some gratitude to CAS members who had supported his bid, The Beijing News said.

Faced with such reports, the CAS told Xinhua it had not received any complaints of election bribery before. The top government science think tank promised to hold to account any members implicated in Zhang's trial, but stopped short of vowing its own investigation.

The Beijing News was not satisfied. It said Zhang's confession and other evidence were enough to warrant an internal inquiry. "Has he spent the proceeds to this end? How much has he spent and who has received money?" the paper asked. "[The public] needs to see more investigation."

Candidates for an academy seat must first secure nominations from at least three incumbent academics or nomination by either a top university or research institute before going through two rounds of pre-selection.

The China Youth Daily noted that the pre-selection phase gave more say to some veteran academy members, making it open to behind-the-scenes manipulation.

The CAS selection process came under scrutiny two years ago after Peking University professor Rao Yi , a renowned life scientist, lost what seemed to be a sure bid for academy seat. During the uproar that followed, Chinese Academy of Engineering vice-president Xu Rigan acknowledged that some candidates had indeed engaged in inappropriate gift-giving.

Veteran CAS member Chen Yuntai also criticised some candidates for inviting members to lavishly catered forums or symposiums.

After Zhang's revelations, the Modern Express said a probe into possible irregularities would not be difficult - if authorities wanted change.

"If CAS wants to tackle the impact of the revelation on its credibility, it should be more proactive in providing oversight bodies with leads and convincing those implicated to come forward," it said.

Even if Zhang's bid for an academy seat was an isolated case, it had still exposed many failures of oversight, the paper said. "It's no doubt the time to reform the election to safeguard its openness and fairness."

The Southern Metropolis Daily noted a trend in recent years of senior officials and state-owned company executives seeking academy seats. The enormous resources and connections of such people could compromise elections, should they resort to unfair campaign tactics.

"Amid such a trend, we might still need to have faith in the sitting academicians for the level of professionalism they've demonstrated," the paper said. "But there is good reason for introducing greater transparency."