No monkey business or else lose your head

A LOT of high-ranking government officials must have been choking on their early morning cup of tea last week as they settled down to read the latest issue of Party and Government Forum.

Prominently displayed among the usual turgid texts on administrative reform was an article by Du Jian and Yong Biao guaranteed to give any cadre with a tendency to accept large sums of cash in return for favours the fright of his life.

In addressing the problem of corruption, the authors had taken the well-known saying ''kill the chicken to scare the monkey'' and reversed it.

Killing the chicken (low-ranking officials) to scare the monkey (high-ranking officials) has been the main modus operandi of the current campaign against corruption.

Thousands of minor officials have been fined and dismissed from their jobs and in severe cases sentenced to long prison terms or even executed.

But despite the large number of chickens being killed, the authors noted, a lot of monkeys had failed to take the hint.

The authors, whose names mean ''put a stop to something'' and ''brave tiger'', said time had now come to start killing a few monkeys rather than just a lot of chickens.

''Killing the chicken to scare the monkey doesn't work, we must kill the monkey to scare the chicken or kill both the monkey and the chicken. Either way, priority must be given to killing the monkey,'' they said.

''Only in this way can the anti-corruption campaign be prevented from becoming simply form [rather than substance] and only in this way will there be any hope of the view of our party held by the broad mass of the people taking a fundamental turn for thebetter.'' While Mr Du and Mr Yong's argument would be warmly welcomed by the vast majority of China's ordinary citizens - two questions remain unanswered.

Just how representative are the authors of the party and the Government on the question of corruption, and how big a monkey do they intend to kill? So far, the highest ranking officials to be purged on corruption charges have been a small number of vice-ministers and deputy governors with a slightly larger batch of mayors and county party secretaries.

But rather than being severely punished as many low-ranking officials have, the ''higher ups'' have been quietly retired, often with their official privileges intact.

The problem is that when you get to the ministerial level and above things start to get very messy.

A minister or state councillor who finds himself the target of a corruption probe could well decide to defend himself by dishing out the dirt on his colleagues, so starting a chain reaction of accusation and counter-accusation. As one long-time Zhongnanhai watcher said, a ''blood bath'' could result if the corruption campaign reached the higher levels.

''It is in everyone's vested interests to keep quiet about their colleagues wrongdoings because no one will be safe once the accusations start to fly, even those who are squeaky clean,'' he said.

So it remains to be seen if the party has the courage to take Mr Du and Mr Yong's advice and really go after the big monkeys or whether the publication of their article was in itself simply a matter of form rather than substance.