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China's Communist Party Aims to Clean Up Corruption

China's ruling Communist Party is tightening discipline within its ranks ahead of its biggest gathering in five years. As VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Beijing, China's leaders are still grappling with how to stamp out corruption within the party - an issue that is fueling discontent across the country.

Until September 2006, Chen Liangyu was the most powerful Chinese Communist Party figure in Shanghai. Today, he faces trial on corruption charges - becoming another symbol of the party's crackdown on crooked cadres.

China's finance minister, Jin Renqing, was also unceremoniously removed from his post in August reportedly because of a corruption investigation.

Now, just weeks before the Communist Party's biggest meeting in five years, Chinese President Huhas been signaling a possible political shake-up to deal with widespread corruption - a problem that has eroded public confidence in the one-party government.

Joseph Cheng, politics professor at the City University of Hong Kong, says China's leadership wants to appear tough on the problem.

"This is seen as the most serious aspect of injustice in China…There is a general perception that the bulk of the rich people earned their wealth by corrupt practices rather than by entrepreneurship," Cheng said. "So corruption is seen as a very serious threat to the legitimacy of the party, to the legitimacy of the leadership exactly because this is seen as the very important symptom of the inadequacies of the political system."

Chinese state media report more than 97,000 officials were disciplined last year alone. But some foreign political analysts believe that is just a fraction of the corrupt cadres in the 73-million-strong Communist Party.

China's massive population of rural poor has been growing resentful.

Every year, thousands of ordinary Chinese travel long distances to Beijing looking for justice over abuses by local government officials. But sometimes those petitioners - many desperate and poor - are rounded up or harassed by Beijing police.

Without reliable avenues for their complaints, political analysts say people are resorting to protests and violence to express discontent.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, says China's efforts against corruption lack two key elements found in a democratic system.

"Without a free press, without an independent judiciary, it's very hard to get rid of abuse of power at the local level," Cabestan said.

China's courts have been imposing harsh punishments on corrupt senior officials. The latest example came in July when the former head of China's food and drug administration (Zheng Xiaoyu) convicted and executed for taking bribes. He had accepted payments from the makers of substandard medicines, some of which proved fatal to those who took them.

But Professor Cheng says few Chinese view these cases as free of political maneuverings.

"Corruption, unfortunately, has become so much a part of life in China. People in China genuinely believe that almost all all cadres are corrupt," Cheng said. "When corrupt cadres are being prosecuted people again genuinely believe that they are prosecuted for political reasons, for insubordination…rather than because of corruption per se."

The dismissal of Chen Liangyu in Shanghai appears to be one such example. President Hu is shoring up power within the top ranks of the party and many believe Chen was removed because he was an ally of Mr. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Still, the Hu government appears to be taking institutional steps to address corruption. These include creating a new national corruption prevention bureau to close loopholes that allow officials to abuse power.

But Professor Cabestan says the top leadership remains in a quandary over the issue. He says, on one hand, tolerating massive corruption could weaken the party and invite social unrest. But reforms could also lead to disarray within the very one-party monopoly it wants to preserve.

"They don't want to jeopardize the system because they think the risk they're taking by opening,
democratizing, the system is bigger than the one they facing (now) in tolerating a certain degree of corruption and making public the most obvious cases. At the end of the day, they think it's less dangerous to continue on that way," Cabestan said.

Mr. Hu has been calling for China to build a "harmonious society" - a term that appears to allude to preventing social unrest.

Political analysts agree that the extent to which China's leader can fight corruption depends on how strong his position is after the 17th party congress.

President Hu is expected to appoint more of his allies to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee when the congress opens on October 15.