If Hollywood were making a film on the life story of Liu Liying, she would be dressed to kill in sleek black leather, handcuffs clipped to her waist. In real life, the ex-policewoman who is in charge of the Fujian province corruption scandal cuts a dowdy figure with her baggy navy and gray outfits. But don't let her unassuming exterior fool you. As one of China's top graft busters, Liu is worthy of a biopic.
China's recent anti-corruption drive owes much of its success to the investigative prowess of Liu and her team at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. In the mid-1990s, on the heels of high-profile busts in Guizhou and Jiangsu provinces, Liu helped bring down Beijing's high-living Communist Party boss Chen Xitong, who was arrested for bribery and diverting funds. The only Politburo member convicted for corruption, Chen was sentenced in 1998 to 16 years' imprisonment. Liu's team of 1,000 investigators in Fujian seems likely to turn up even bigger misdeeds. Not that the 68-year-old is given to self-promotion. Unlike other high-level Beijing officials, Liu has taken pains to polish her squeaky-clean image, sometimes even abstaining from lavish banquets and cordoning her family off from the outside world. With her frequent pep talks to her investigators on the virtues of a humble, ascetic lifestyle, Liu has made it her mission to take on China's so- called princelings--the pampered children of senior cadres who are often criticized for milking family ties. She's one of the few people who is respected by both Beijing and the general law-enforcement community, says Ding Xueliang, a research fellow at the Australian National University who tracks corruption in China. Her integrity is unquestioned.
Liu's ethical clarity goes only so far when provincial authorities find out they are targets of her scrutiny. When Liu's colleagues were looking into massive smuggling in Guangdong province two years ago, their cars were tailed. In the Fujian case, investigators complained that local state security agents were tapping their phones. Even if Liu does collect reams of evidence, her discipline commission can only recommend what punishments should be meted out. Decision-making power lies in the hands of Beijing's top leadership. Liu does, however, enjoy the apparent support of both President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. When authorities in Xiamen proved recalcitrant, Zhu reportedly instructed them to hew to Liu's orders.
But with the latest scandal lapping dangerously close to a Jiang protégé, the current Beijing party boss Jia Qinglin, Liu could find herself without the high-level backing she needs to do her job. Ultimately, this case will not be decided on the strength of the evidence, says Tsao King-kwun, a professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It will be a political decision by Jiang on whether to prosecute or not. In the real world, crusading heroines don't always enjoy happy endings.