BEIJING – China's crackdown on organized crime and government corruption is reaching a climax with the start today of the trial of the former senior police officer of Chongqing on charges of corruption, rape and protecting criminal gangs.
The high-profile investigation, which began last summer, has captivated the nation due to its gripping tales of top-level corruption, sex and a violent underworld that controlled businesses and sowed terror in Chongqing, a city of 30 million people, chosen by Beijing in 1997 to lead the economic take-off of the poor southwestern hinterland.
|Wen Qiang, 3rd from left, his wife Zhou Xiaoya, left, and three other senior former Chongqing policemen stand trial in a courtroom in Chongqing on Tuesday.
So far, the campaign has resulted in 782 prosecutions, including 87 city officials, the police chiefs of six districts and several tycoons.
The clampdown has won popular support, although there is some skepticism about how far Beijing will go in striking at the roots of corruption across China.
Not only in Chongqing
Wen Qiang, Chongqing's former police and justice chief, is the most senior official to be charged in the corruption probe. He is accused of taking more than $2.4 million in bribes to protect criminal gangs, a large chunk of which was recovered in cash buried in a fish pond. He also owned eight luxury villas across the city. His wife, Zhou Xiaoya, is also on trial for abusing her position as the spouse of a government official to gain more than $1 million.
Wen is also accused of raping a university student several times.
Earlier in the anti-corruption campaign, his sister-in-law Xie Caiping, dubbed the "godmother of Chongqing's underworld," was sentenced to 18 years for running gambling dens and drug trafficking. A former tax bureau official, Xie brazenly ran a casino and brothel just opposite Chongqing's People's Court.
"Only death penalty can appease the people!" was the dominant sentiment in China's Internet chat rooms today. "Could it be that all the bad people are just in Chongqing?" was another typical comment.
If found guilty, Wen could be sentenced to death. The odds are not in his favor. His trial, which is expected to last four or five days, started the day after another police official Yue Cun, was sentenced to death for corruption. In 2004, a former vice-governor of Anhui province was put to death for taking bribes worth just over $620,000. And in 2000, authorities immediately carried out the death sentence of a vice-governor of Jiangxi province who had earned some $650,000 from bribes.
The politics of anti-corruption
The Chongqing campaign has also focused attention on the political aspirations of the city's charismatic Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, who has lead the anti-corruption charge and who observers say is a candidate for promotion in China's leadership succession.
"Wen Qiang's case is nothing but a public show for Bo Xilai's personal campaign to get a seat at the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012," said Professor Cheng Li, Research Director at the Brookings Institute's John L.Thornton China Center who specializes in research on China's leadership elite. "Some top leaders certainly will not fail to see Bo Xilai's motivation and some others may want to back Bo for the sake of factional balance of power in the national leadership."
Cheng argued that the crackdown won't do anything to dent the crisis of national corruption in the long run.
"There is no sign at all that China's leadership is seriously fighting corruption. Instead the Chinese public are witnessing that spouses and children of all levels of leaders, especially high-ranking officials, are making big fortunes," added Cheng.
Dr. Kenneth Lieberthal, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written books on China's government and reform, agreed that Bo was using the campaign to raise his profile, but also questioned its long-term effect.
"Bo Xilai clearly is promoting the anti-gang effort in Chongqing, likely in order to boost his public image and potentially his chances for further advancement in 2012," Lieberthal said. "But a really effective effort against corruption would require changes, such as establishing a truly independent organization with the power to ferret out and punish corruption.
"State intervention in the economy at all levels, moreover, continues to grow. In this situation, almost certainly the absolute level of corruption in China is increasing, despite highly publicized trials like the one currently underway in Chongqing. The trial does not, I think, signify any type of basic change in governance in China," said Lieberthal.
Apparently aware of critics' speculation about his political ambition, Bo Xilai himself tried to address the issue in a meeting with Chongqing's students late last month, according to a China Daily report. The report referred to suggestions that the Chongqing campaign was politically motivated. "We won't listen to this kind of twisted reasoning," Bo was quoted as saying.
But Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based American analyst of Chinese politics, is still skeptical. He said that the Chongqing trial is just a "highly orchestrated effort by the Beijing leadership to make sure that the Communist Party is not seen as consorting with organized crime."
"Bo Xilai is a major beneficiary of this effort, but it is managed by Beijing at every step," said Moses.