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Corruption or control?

September 28, 2006

THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT wants its people to believe that no one is beyond the reach of its sweeping anti-corruption campaign. That is the message behind the sacking and detention of Shanghai's Communist Party leader, Chen Liangyu, on Sunday. But few in China or anywhere else are likely to buy the notion that this is a principled crackdown on corruption.

Chen stands accused of misappropriating funds in the city's pension fund and using his position to enrich friends and family members. The member of the national Politburo may have done all that, but his real misfortune is to be associated with former President Jiang Zemin's Shanghai power base at a time when President Hu Jintao is trying to consolidate his control, partly by emasculating Shanghai's power within the party.

Chen is the highest-ranking official to be arrested or fired as a result of the anti-corruption investigations launched last spring, and other party leaders in Shanghai have been put on notice that they may be next in what could turn out to be a widespread purge. Such purges aren't uncommon when a new leader takes power in China; Jiang did much the same by prompting the resignation of Beijing's party secretary in 1995.

Getting rid of Chen serves a variety of political purposes for Hu. He eliminates a potential rival ahead of next year's party congress, sends a message to other Shanghai officials that they need to take Beijing's dictates on slower economic growth more seriously and reassures resentful residents of impoverished rural areas that the central government is concerned about all that bourgeois hedonism in China's glitziest city.

Never mind that a self-proclaimed campaign against corruption can itself be corrupt if politically driven; it still can reap dividends. In China, corruption and double-dealing are endemic throughout society. As Times staff writer Mark Magnier pointed out Sunday in an article on the country's growing crisis of trust, cheating is rampant in business relationships, false advertising is an everyday fact of life, kickbacks are ubiquitous and counterfeiting is so common that even the smallest stores are equipped with machines to authenticate currency.

Corruption, it's often said, is one of the viruses that could kill off China's economic miracle. Indeed, in most parts of the world, such an environment would have already sent investors fleeing for the exits. There is usually a direct link between corruption and poverty. Those nations at the top of Transparency International's annual list of the world's most corrupt countries tend also to top the lists of the world's poorest. But China, because of its sheer size and promise, has been able to grow spectacularly despite the corrupt practices of many government functionaries turned capitalists.

The country has an "anything goes" frontier mentality that Californians of a bygone era might have recognized. That's not sustainable forever. Lawless frontiers are a great place to make a quick buck, but eventually the citizenry gets fed up and starts screaming for a sheriff -- one who isn't just going after his political rivals.

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