Scaring the Chinese Straight on Corruption

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The wives of 19 newly promoted mayors and senior Communist Party officials in Liuyang City of central China's Hunan Province got an unusual glimpse recently of the perils that come with their spouses' new jobs. The bemused group was taken to the Hunan Women's Prison for an up-close and personal look at the consequences should their husbands become engulfed by the country's rising tide of corruption.

One of the inmates they met, China's Xinhua News Agency reported, was an example of a "bad spouse of a Party and government leader," who had accepted bribes on her husband's behalf and was paying the prices for her misdeeds. Luo Jiaguang, a senior municipal party official, organized the tour, the report said, quoting him as saying, "The 19 men now have more power than at any other time in their lives. The tour for their spouses serves as a warning to the women to be 'virtuous helpers' and not bad instigators." In more than 80% of corruption cases, the report notes, wives and other relatives of the corrupt officials are involved in the crimes.

But despite a nationwide anti-graft campaign instigated by President Hu Jintao, many Chinese aren't convinced that the Party is really serious about uprooting corruption. As the Xinhua article itself noted, an online poll by the People's Daily website, which carried the story, found that nearly 80% of respondents either thought the forced prison tour was "just for show" or would be ineffective in preventing the officials from illegally profiting from their positions. That is a distressing prospect for Communist Party Cadres, who remain keenly aware that rampant corruption was one of the prime motivating factors behind the huge 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations that were finally suppressed by the military at a cost of hundreds of lives.

The resurgence of corruption that has accompanied China's phenomenal growth has been underlined in recent months by a series of high-level arrests in scandals involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Those detained have included the vice mayor of Beijing, the head of one of China's biggest property companies and senior government and private sector officials in Shanghai. Despite such well-publicized arrests, says Hu Xingdou, a professor of China studies at the Beijing Institute of Technology, there's little sign that the spread of corruption is being slowed by the government's actions. In Liuyang, for example, the fact that party officials are being forced to take desperate measures like the prison tour actually signals that "China's corruption is getting worse," he says. "You have to give credit to whoever came up with the idea. But in the long term it won't do any good," says the professor, who advocates sweeping changes in education, supervision and administration of the bureaucracy. "You have to change the system."