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Meeting of Chinese Lawmakers to Target Official Corruption - 2002-03-01

Chinese lawmakers are gathering in Beijing for the annual meeting of Parliament next week. Much of the session will be devoted to the issue of corruption, which pervades almost every level of the Chinese Communist Party. But with leaders concerned about a major changing of the guard later this year, no bold new initiatives are expected.

Deputies to China's National People's Congress are expected to focus on the record number of corruption cases among Chinese Communist Party officials last year. Chinese state media say investigators punished more than 175,000 officials in 2001 for embezzlement, bribery or neglect of duty. Sixteen of them were senior Communist Party leaders.

This will be the NPC's last session before the three most powerful men in China - President Jiang Zemin, Parliament chief, Li Peng, and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji - are expected to retire late this year.

About half of China's other senior government officials will also step down to make way for a younger generation.

Analysts say corruption is the number one issue facing the Communist Party at this year's gathering at the Great Hall of the People.

Hu Angang, an economist with Qinghua University, says that according to China's National Audit Office figures, government officials embezzled more than $19 billion in 2001, causing enormous harm to the economy. Mr. Hu says that only systemic reforms can root out corruption in many government departments.

For instance, Mr. Hu says, almost every government agency has the power to collect fees, creating multiple opportunities for money to be embezzled. But he says that reforming the country's fee-collection system is a complex task that could take years.

Allegations of corruption among party officials have become so pervasive that even the most senior leaders are not immune. In recent months, Parliament chief Li Peng - the second most powerful man in China - has been fighting off talk that his wife and son misused their family connections.

And just weeks ago, Mr. Li had to defend himself against rumors that he was responsible for spying devices found on Mr. Jiang's customized official airplane. The plane was built and outfitted in the United States but Chinese and U.S. officials have remained tight-lipped about the affair. It is still not clear who planted the electronic bugs.

But the allegations show just how endemic official corruption may be in the Communist Party. What happens in the case of Li Peng could indicate how the government will handle the problem.

Wu Guoguang - a political science professor at Chinese University in Hong Kong and former party official - says Mr. Li is credited with consolidating the Communist Party's power, by his strong actions to suppress the 1989 democracy movement. But he still may not be protected, if he is guilty of corruption.

Mr. Wu says once Mr. Li retires as expected at the 16th Party Congress this autumn, he may not be able to ward off an investigation into the corruption allegations surrounding his family.

Mr. Li is not the only senior leader whose reputation has been tainted. Even Mr. Zhu - the country's top economic reformer - has been touched. His one-time protégé, Wang Xuebing, was dismissed as head of the China Construction Bank and is now under investigation for problematic loans he made.

Mr. Zhu has not been linked to any improprieties, and has spearheaded some of China's most aggressive anti-corruption reforms. But Mr. Zhu's reforms could be hurt if China's key financial institutions are unable to get rid of high-level corruption.

And that is the key. Some analysts say it is not enough to punish the corrupt, when the entire system needs an overhaul.

Bob Broadfoot, is with the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong. He says that in the upcoming 10-day session of the National People's Congress, Chinese leaders are likely to showcase their determination to root out corrupt individuals, so they can maintain credibility with the Chinese public. But he says the tough talk is unlikely to lead to systemic reforms.

"What China tends to do is create examples of how corruption is being prosecuted and rooted out. But there are so many aspects of it in the system that if they were to do a comprehensive attack on the problem, you'd bring down the entire system," Mr. Broadfoot says.

Mr. Broadfoot says that in this pivotal year of transition for the Communist Party, leaders would rather play it safe. He says officials will appear tough on corruption, but will refrain from undertaking any major reforms that could disrupt the stability of the one-party system and jeopardize their hold on power.