The Proxy War

"Before the Gates of Hell" has all the makings of a Chinese best seller. The new book tells of a provincial tax-bureau boss who gets promoted several times and goes crooked along the way. The cadre pockets bribes steadily and profits from illicit foreign-exchange transactions before being caught and executed for his misdeeds. "Gates of Hell" is notable because it's a true story, based on conversations the author had with former Hebei province tax-bureau head Li Zhen. In interviews with Xinhua news-agency reporter Qiao Yunhua, who wrote the book, Li poured out his heart about his moral transgressions. He was put to death in November 2003 for corruption. "Tell my young son that his father died because of greed. Tell him to take a job as a manure carrier or a beggar--just don't take bribes," Li sobbed to the author.

Li Zhen's death-row confessions are the talk of Beijing these days. Though corruption tales are a touchy topic, the Communist Party's propaganda machine wants its cadres to learn a lesson from Li's demise. It's easy to see why: government graft and cronyism are massive problems, and are the top complaints of ordinary Chinese. From 1998 to 2002 nearly 850,000 party cadres were punished for corruption. Since the 1980s, when market reforms were first introduced, up to 4,000 crooked officials have fled to foreign lands, according to the Legal Evening Daily--taking an estimated $50 billion with them.

The problem now serves as a battleground upon which the country's most powerful political actors are jousting. Observers looking to see whether President Hu Jintao has fully taken the reins after his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, gave up his last official position in September have little to base their judgments on; China's leaders are not given to drastic policy shifts or pronouncements. So instead they're keeping a close eye on proteges of the two men and how they're faring in the murky world of Communist Party politics. "No one dares attack Hu or Jiang openly, so their more vulnerable allies are the targets," says a foreign diplomat in Beijing.

Last month, for instance, Tian Fengshan, the former minister of Land and Natural Resources, was booted out of the party and charged with accepting bribes for promotions he doled out as a senior official in Heilongjiang province in the 1990s. Since 2002, a remarkable number of corrupt officials have been detained in Heilongjiang, especially in Suihua city. But Tian's case was sensitive because he's a friend of Hu's. Both men attended Beijing's Central Party School at the same time. Sources close to the probe told NEWSWEEK that the question of whether to go after Tian was passed all the way up to Hu himself, after hundreds of lower-level Heilongjiang officials were detained in 2002 and 2003. Hu reportedly decreed that his former pal be dealt with according to the law. "In the political struggle at the top, Tian was sacrificed and Hu couldn't--or wouldn't--help him," says one source familiar with the probe.

Tian's downfall was thought to be part of a behind-the-scenes deal between Hu's camp and supporters of Jiang Zemin, many of whom served as officials in Shanghai and are collectively known as the Shanghai faction. In exchange for Tian's departure, some sort of disciplinary action was supposed to be meted out to a senior Shanghai official implicated in a financial and real-estate scandal in China's largest city, according to an official in Heilongjiang.

But apparently there was no trade-off. Shanghai has been the epicenter of a sensational criminal case in which business magnate Zhou Zhengyi--ranked as China's 11th richest man by Forbes magazine--was charged with financial wrongdoing and accused by citizens of illegally evicting them from land he procured illicitly with the help of city authorities. This year Zhou was given a light sentence (three years) for financial misdeeds--but the citizens who filed suit against him lost their case. And all top Shanghai municipal and party leaders remain in their posts.

What happened? According to Chinese sources, investigators left senior Shanghai city officials alone because Jiang had secured a promise of political protection for senior cadres close to him when he agreed to relinquish his last important post, as head of the military. "Almost certainly, Jiang's retirement package included protection for him, his immediate family and his extended political family" in the Shanghai faction, says a Beijing-based Western diplomat. Partly this reflects Jiang's continuing clout. But Politburo members also want to avoid a repeat of the violent score-settling that defined the Cultural Revolution and tore apart the country's social fabric. "The anticorruption campaign cannot jeopardize political stability; otherwise there'll be chaos," says a Chinese journalist who's investigated a number of graft cases. "If you take the pillars out of the building, the whole place could collapse."

The problem with such horse trading is that it merely perpetuates China's culture of cronyism. It's allowed long-term abuses of power by senior party cadres tasked with the most sensitive responsibilities. "When there's corruption in the official appointment system, and the legal system, then all justice is lost," says Wang Yukai, a professor at the national School of Administration in Beijing. The bribes-for-promotions scheme in the city of Suihua involved so many government officials that authorities had to offer amnesty to small fry who pocketed less than $12,000--otherwise the entire city government would have ground to a halt. "Half of the high-level officials in Suihua had 'bought' their appointments," says Wang. He calls Heilongjiang the country's "most corrupt province."

A steady stream of such revelations has stoked public outrage in a country where the gap between rich and poor is growing. Last Monday a sidewalk scuffle between a wealthy couple and an itinerant dockworker in the Wanzhou area of Chongqing triggered a riot. Up to 50,000 people looted government offices and torched police vehicles. The melee started when the well-to-do husband began beating the laborer, insinuating he could get away with it either because he was an official or because he had good official connections. "The man said, 'If I break your leg, I'll have to pay only $12,000; if I kill you I'll pay just $60,000'," says a local journalist. That incensed bystanders, prompting the husband to phone police. When the cops arrived, they helped the couple escape from the mob. "People said the police supported the man just because he had money," recounted the journalist.

Some Chinese expect Hu will pursue bribe-takers more aggressively, and further up the chain of command, than did his predecessors. It won't be easy. Those who feel threatened will put up a fight. The most serious hint of recent disagreements between Hu and Jiang supporters was what one diplomat called an "outburst" during a Politburo meeting. In it, Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, a Jiang protege, criticized macroeconomic controls that Premier Wen Jiabao, a Hu ally, has implemented to cool down China's overheating economy. Chen's name reportedly has been linked to the Zhou Zhengyi scandal, says one official source. Hu may have to overlook such details to preserve internal harmony.