Corruption crackdown must include reform of China's oft-abused parole system
Corrupt officials and others sometimes serve only a fraction of their jail sentences because loopholes have not been closed
As the mainland leadership vows to curb rampant corruption, hardly a day goes by without announcements that officials have been sacked and placed under investigation for graft or given lengthy sentences with many ending up jailed for life.
Many mainlanders may remain sceptical about the effect of the anti-corruption campaign which is merely aimed at tackling the symptoms of the disease rather than undertaking drastic reforms to root out the causes by curbing power and improving accountability and transparency.
But at least they can take comfort in the fact that corrupt officials convicted of embezzling tens of millions of yuan and living a decadent life will rot in jail for a long time.
Well, that is what they think will happen. In reality, because of legal loopholes and a corrupt prison system, most convicted corrupt officials usually get out after serving a fraction of their jail time. Some even go straight home after their trial.
One example is the case of Lin Chongzhong, a former deputy mayor of Jiangmen, in Guangdong. He was convicted of corruption and jailed for 10 years in 2009, but he reportedly went straight home on the day of his trial. His relatives managed to bribe the doctors and prison warden with more than 100,000 yuan (HK$127,000) and Lin was released on medical parole with a fake medical certificate saying he suffered from high blood pressure.
During his so-called parole, Lin reportedly kept a high profile and remained active, being entertained in nightclubs and at banquets without showing any sign of suffering from high blood pressure. In 2010, he was sent back to another prison to serve out his sentence after the authorities were tipped off about the scandal and launched a review of his case.
China started to introduce parole in 1990 to show compassion or account for humanitarian circumstances.
According to the regulations, prisoners can be released on medical parole under 30 conditions, mainly depending on the type of diseases the prisoner suffers from.
But the rules, more than 20 years old and seldom revised, contain many loopholes and give prisons the deciding power in granting parole after consulting the police and prosecutors. In reality, prisons release prisoners without even bothering to notify the police and local authorities, according to media reports.
It is interesting to note that such a lax parole system has also been used for political purposes. Occasionally, the mainland authorities grant parole to political dissidents like Wang Dan to exile them in another country in the name of allowing them to seek medical treatment.
But it goes without saying that the system has given the rich and the elite, and even powerful underworld figures, ample room to seek parole and stay out of prison so long as they find the right people to bribe.
The most outrageous example of the abuse of parole was the case of a gangster called Zou Xianwei. Zou was convicted of murder in 1995 and was given a suspended death sentence, later commuted to life in imprisonment in Dalian in Liaoning province.
But through bribing the prison warden and other officials, Zou was released on parole five years later. Soon after he got out, he committed another murder. Zou was executed in 2003.
Jailed officials, however, are the people who have used these loopholes most after embezzling taxpayers' money and with no media attention to monitor them after their trials.
More importantly, they could tap the powerful connections they built up when in office to help them to get off the hook easily. There have been many cases in which the corrupt officials not only walked free after a little jail time, but also managed to keep much of their dirty money because the mainland courts rarely chase after the cash if they decide to mete out stiffer sentences.
The widespread abuse of the parole system has recently received high-level attention in the government. In the five years to last March, the Supreme People's Procuratorate reportedly corrected inappropriate decisions to reduce sentences or grant parole in cases involving more than 52,000 people.
Despite this attention, the mainland authorities have been slow in plugging the loopholes and tightening the regulations on parole. There is no better news than this for officials who get caught in the anti-corruption campaign.