CHINA BRIEFING
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Key questions never asked in graft probe of ex-railways chief Liu Zhijun

Length of probe into Liu Zhijun indicated scale of misdeeds, but murky details of a web of corruption were not clarified in swift trial

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 5:39am

Former railways minister Liu Zhijun stood in a Beijing court on June 9 facing charges of bribery and abuse of power in one of the country's most sensational trials of recent years.

The court did not announce its verdict, but Liu faces life in prison or the death penalty.

Apparently, the authorities intend to come down hard on Liu to show its determination to fight corruption and salvage the reputation and image of China's trillion-yuan high-speed railway system. It went ahead in leaps and bounds under Liu but also was tarnished by safety concerns and mismanagement, particularly following the fatal crash that killed 40 passengers and injured more than 170 in Wenzhou in 2011.

Unfortunately, Liu's long investigation and trial have raised more important questions about the country's judicial system and anti-corruption efforts.

Liu disappeared from public view and was believed to be being dealt with by the Communist Party's anti-graft investigators since February 2011, before he was formally charged this month. The length of the investigation indicated the complexity and scale of his irregularities.

According to the indictment, he took advantage of his position and helped 11 people win promotions and contracts, and accepted 64.6 million yuan (HK$80.9 million) in bribes between 1986 and 2011.

But his trial lasted just 3-1/2 hours, including the reading of the indictment and arguments from prosecutors and defence lawyers.

The trial's brevity even shocked many mainland criminal lawyers accustomed to such summary proceedings. Some have openly wondered in state media if the trial was just a show and whether Liu received any real defence.

The pressure from their peers was so strong that Liu's two court-appointed lawyers were forced to defend themselves in long media interviews.

Those interviews, together with the indictment and the state media reports, have shed interesting light on how the prosecutors built the case and the loopholes that exist in the judicial system.

According to the indictment, Liu received 15.61 million yuan from 10 people, most of whom were former railways officials and Liu's close allies seeking promotions.

The remaining 49 million yuan came from a businesswoman named Ding Shumiao , the key beneficiary of Liu's abuse of power. At Liu's instruction, Ding used the money to bribe other officials in an attempt to clear another former senior official who was implicated in corruption in 2007. In the end, the official concerned was jailed for 14 years in 2009 for receiving 1.9 million yuan in bribes and failing to account for 3.97 million yuan in assets.

Liu's lawyers argued in the court that the 49 million yuan should not have been included in the charges against Liu as the money did not belong to him.

Interestingly, while the prosecutors admitted the 49 million yuan as part of the evidence, they excluded much larger amounts Ding spent or held for him.

According to state media, Ding spent 50 million yuan on a TV drama series based on the classic novel The Dream of Red Mansion and managed to get several of the actresses to sleep with Liu, prompting speculation that Ding financed the production with this in mind.

More importantly, Ding and her family made nearly 4 billion yuan on contracts on the high-speed railway network because of Liu's help.

Liu reportedly asked Ding to hold the 4 billion yuan for him as he wanted it to pay bribes for further career promotions. Before his downfall, Liu was already a powerful cabinet minister and a member of the party's central committee. It has made people shudder at the thought of what he had in mind - a Politburo member?

That also explains why he was able to rule the railways ministry for nearly 10 years despite much speculation that he was corrupt. According to the indictment, the charges against him covered a period of 25 years from 1986 to 2011.

How was he allowed to climb up and carry on for so long? Who were his protectors in the leadership and how much money did they receive?

Those are the interesting questions anti-graft investigators have never bothered to explore.