China Attacks Communist Party Corruption

This year China has seen an unusual number of high-level corruption inquiries. Some investigations have ended in the killing, torture or suicide of party officials. The party has kept most of these cases quiet. Now it is changing the way it investigates its members.

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China this year has seen an unusual number of high-level corruption probes. A deputy commander of the Chinese navy and the vice mayor of Beijing are among the latest to fall. Some recent probes have ended in the killing, torture or suicide of party officials. The party has kept these cases quiet, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, it has also changed the way it investigates its rank and file members.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Eight years ago, Chen Yuefei still believed the propaganda he put out. He was 35 years old and he worked as the Communist Party propaganda chief in a district of Taizhou, a city of 4.5 million people in eastern Zhejiang Province.

Chen describes himself as a principled man who spoke out corruption within the city administration. Not long after, he found himself detained in a hotel by local agents of the party's anti-corruption branch, the Discipline and Inspection Commission. The suspected him of taking bribes.

Mr. CHEN YUEFEI (Former Communist Party Propaganda Chief): (Through translator) For the first 12 days they didn't allow me to sleep, to sit, or even to lean on anything. And they used an arsenal of techniques to force me to confess. They beat me with everything from shoes and towels to electric cables, metal pipes and bicycle locks.

KUHN: After more than a week without sleep, Chen finally broke. He confessed to taking more than $4,000 in bribes from an advertising agent. He was released after 54 days in detention and he continues to protest his innocence.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Chen says he obtained this amateur recording in which the advertising agent admits that he too was tortured into implicating Chen. Despite the evidence and reports in the Chinese media, Chen has been unable to clear his name.

Chinese media have reported on other party members less fortunate than Chen. A financial official in north China was beaten to death in custody. A policewoman in southern Hunan Province jumped to her death from a balcony while in detention. The reports have prompted criticism from a few outspoken legal scholars, including Beijing University professor He Weifang. He argues that the party has usurped the state's powers over criminal justice.

Professor HE WEIFANG (Professor, Beijing University): (Through translator) No law in China gives a political party the power to limit anybody's personal freedom. The party has exercised these powers above the law. It's wrong for a party to try to regulate a power they're not supposed to have.

KUHN: Last year the Communist Party banned its investigators from detaining suspects for more than three months. Detained party members must now be given medical care when needed and must be allowed to communicate with the outside world.

These new rules have received almost no publicity and implementation has been slow. The new rules also say that party investigators can only investigate party members.

Li Minzhu is a private construction contractor in southern Hunan Province. He says that the party's investigators have detained scores of local businessmen who are not party members as a way of extorting money from them. He himself was detained for 50 days six years ago.

Mr. LI MINZHU (Construction Contractor): (Through translator) Anyone who doesn't cooperate is detained. If a business wants to be left alone, it has to pay protection money to the party's discipline and inspection commission. Only then will they give a plaque identifying you as a legal private enterprise.

KUHN: As for former propaganda official Chen Yuefei, he's become skeptical abut the party's motives in combating graft.

Mr. CHEN: (Through translator) The party's anti-corruption investigations have netted a few corrupt officials in recent years, but they've also wronged many good comrades. These upright people have offended officials who have then used the corruption investigations to get rid of them.

KUHN: President Hu Jintao has been cracking down hard on corruption as he works to consolidate his own political power. Is he working to build clean government, or just to strike at his political rivals? The opaque nature of politics here leaves observers plenty of room to guess.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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