When the most senior mainland leader to be found guilty of corruption since 1949 was sentenced to 16 years on July 31, the event merited a few minutes on the main evening news in Bejing and six paragraphs the next morning on the bottom of the front page of the People's Daily. The seniority of Chen Xitong, former mayor of Beijing and a member of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, and the money involved, US$2.2 billion, made the story the scandal of the year, if not the decade. But the public, whose money Chen stole, has been left almost completely in the dark about the case. How did such a huge theft of public money go undetected for four years? Who else was involved? Why did it take more than three years to bring the case to trial and why was it not held in public? What was the level of political interference in the case? The case sends mixed signals on the more than 2,000-year battle of the government against corruption by officials. It shows the system is able to catch and sentence an official of Chen's seniority and power. But it also shows the secrecy of the process, leading most people to believe the verdict and length of the sentence was decided by a handful of leaders with a telephone call to the judge. Many believe Chen got off lightly, as numerous lower-ranking officials have been executed for embezzling far smaller amounts. What everyone agrees is corruption is widespread and represents a potentially fatal threat to the Communist Party, as party chief Jiang Zemin has said many times. It means the bribe you pay the policeman to avoid the traffic violation or obtain the passport you need quickly and the liquor and cigarettes you give to the hygiene inspector to ignore the rats in the restaurant kitchen. It also means the kickback to officials to sign contracts, up to several per cent of their value, and, with officials of Chen's level, bribes running into millions of dollars to approve projects. In his speech to the National People's Congress in March, then top judge Ren Jianxin said between 1993 and last year, 158,806 officials had been sentenced for corruption, including 174 in cases involving more than one million yuan (about HK$930,700). The issue then is not how serious corruption is but how to try to stamp it out. When Zhu Rongji became Premier in March, people across the mainland at last felt confidence that they might be able to turn the tide. Mr Zhu is the one of the few leaders to come to the office without a whiff of corruption surrounding him or his family, a man who could look people in the eye and say that he was serious about combatting corruption and they would believe him. One of the main aims of the ambitious reforms he has launched since March is to root out corruption. For example, he wants to cut the number of civil servants by half, and turn state companies into self-managed corporate entities. If this succeeds, it will mean millions of officials will lose the chance to exchange their power over companies for money. He and Mr Jiang stunned the mainland last month by naming the army, police and armed police as being involved in smuggling and announcing a ban on these institutions, as well as the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies, from business. This is to attack corruption at its highest level. As in other communist states, the police and army are virtually above the law. Allowing them to go into business means a licence to translate this privilege into money. For many reformists, corruption has been endemic to the mainland communist system since 1949, because power emanates from a single source, the party, and corruption cannot be rooted out until their is a separation of powers. One academic said: 'We need a judiciary that is independent. It is not. It remains under party control, especially for major cases like those of Chen. It will take decades to build up a strong legal system, because we have started to train legal officials only in the past 15 years. 'We need media that are independent and able to supervise the party and the government. What we have now are newspapers and television that are tightly controlled by the party. Only in sport do journalists have relative freedom to report. 'We need a legislature with its own powers, that does not follow the orders of the party.' Defenders of the party say this wish list is a dream, given the low level of the mainland's educational and political development, and that the government is in the process of building up a stronger judiciary, legislature and media. They argue that only the party can act as the final guarantor of social and economic stability, the precondition for any development.