The kid-glove treatment of Ouyang De , one of Guangdong's most corrupt cadres since 1949, has cast doubt on Beijing's commitment to eradicating graft.
Misgivings about a partial cover-up had arisen even before his case went to the Guangdong courts in February. The former vice-chairman of the Guangdong People's Congress was only charged with taking 500,000 yuan (HK$465,000) in ill-got gains.
This is despite the fact that internal documents and the Guangdong media referred to Ouyang, the long-time honcho of prosperous Dongguan County, as head of an 'empire of black money'.
For example, under Ouyang's aegis, at least eight of his offsprings and relatives were able to emigrate to Hong Kong. And in their capacity as 'Hong Kong businessmen', these 'emperor's kinsfolk' became multi-millionaires soon after their return home.
The official media reported last Friday that Ouyang had been given a 15-year jail term, a slap on the wrist by Chinese standards.
After all, the yanda ('strike hard') campaign against criminals is still raging. And among the estimated 1,000 malefactors executed since the spring, dozens were shot for relatively minor wrongdoings such as making pornographic videos and theft of a few tens of thousands of yuan.
The special treatment accorded Ouyang also looked jarring given reports in mid-1995 that the administration of President Jiang Zemin would implicate many of Ouyang's associates and underlings.
The reports said the 'nab-the-tigers' campaign would be used to teach a lesson to Guangdong, long considered as having succumbed to 'bourgeois liberalisation'.
Late last year, however, the Hong Kong press reported that the Jiang leadership had struck a deal with the nation's richest province: in return for Guangdong's support for some unspecified political goals, only Ouyang would be incriminated and his head would not roll.
The denouement announced last week has confirmed suspicions that Beijing has a double standard regarding politically sensitive suspects, particularly those with good connections.
The Ouyang saga pales in significance beside one of the worst scandals in the Communist Party's 75-year history: the case of former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong , the only Politburo member to have been sacked on corruption charges.
At the fifth plenum of the Central Committee last September, the leadership vowed to leave no stone unturned in tracking down his crimes, which were uncovered soon after the suicide of his deputy, the vice-mayor of Beijing Wang Baosen , in April 1995.
Given that Wang had allegedly swallowed 18.3 billion yuan worth of loot, the nature and profundity of 'godfather' Chen's guilt could be gauged.
A couple of months before the plenum, Beijing had set up a multi-departmental investigation team to crack the Chen case. It consisted of elite agents from the police, the Ministry of State Security, the procuratorate, the Ministry of Supervision, and the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the party's highest watchdog.
A year has passed, and things are still under wraps. The procrastination is disturbing particularly in light of the fact that under yanda norms, a criminal can be caught, probed, found guilty and executed in a matter of a week or so.
According to an informed source, the Chen investigations were practically suspended by last October. The wily ex-Beijing boss laid all the blame on senior officials, including a couple of Politburo-level cadres and their close kin.
'Every time it threatens to touch upon the possible complicity of a top official, the investigation is halted on orders from on high,' the source said. In a talk to members of the eight 'democratic parties' late last year, Mr Jiang hinted that the Chen affair would be soft-pedalled. The president reportedly said that while Chen had siphoned off huge sums, the bulk of the funds were wasted in ill-considered projects rather than used for his personal enjoyment.
Western diplomats believed that while Mr Jiang had at the fifth plenum proposed that a stiff sentence be meted out to Chen, he himself had come upon pressure from the latter's patrons.
Moreover, Mr Jiang needs the support of the politicians Chen had threatened to expose for the president's bid for a new term as party General Secretary.
By the spring, it had become obvious that Chen, who is leading the life of a retired cadre, would be spared criminal proceedings.
Moreover, the dozen-odd senior Beijing cadres who were affiliates of the Chen Xitong-Wang Baosen cabal would be allowed to keep their mandarin's cap.
In recent speeches to the Beijing party committee, Mr Jiang and Premier Li Peng have stressed the need to 'raise morale' and to 'leave the Chen and Wang affairs behind us'.
Wei Jianxing , Chen's successor as Beijing party boss and CCDI chief, even claimed that 'the leadership corps in the Beijing municipality is good in quality'. The authorities are even letting on that they are redoubling efforts to tackle graft. The media disclosed on Sunday that more than 1,700 anti-corruption bureaus had been set up within 29 provincial, 289 district-and municipal-level, and 1,400 grassroots procuratorates.
CCDI cadres indicated their goal was to 'gradually render the fight against corruption systematic and legalised'.
In reality, final authority in combatting corruption rests with the Politburo and other heavyweight party politicians. And campaigns against high-level graft-takers are often linked to factional struggles within the party.
This means that cadres on the upswing are seldom caught. As Chen's case shows, even officials who are in eclipse could save their necks provided they have the wherewithal to implicate those in power. In spite of the outcries of liberal scholars, the leadership has refused to let relatively neutral bodies such as the National People's Congress oversee anti-corruption operations.
And instead of reforming the political structure, Mr Jiang has asserted that the ideal of clean government hinges upon inculcating in cadres Marxist rectitude as well as 'the right world-view and political consciousness'.
Corruption in China