China's wall of silence on £6bn corruption trials

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The Independent Online

For the past week, China has been showcasing the prosperous port of Xiamen, once known as Amoy, in the coastal province of Fujian. Over banquets, cocktails and press conferences, government officials at Xiamen's international trade and investment fair promised to open China's doors yet wider.

For the past week, China has been showcasing the prosperous port of Xiamen, once known as Amoy, in the coastal province of Fujian. Over banquets, cocktails and press conferences, government officials at Xiamen's international trade and investment fair promised to open China's doors yet wider.

But once the foreign businessmen went home happy on Tuesday, the government quickly abandoned the public relations blitz and reverted to its preferred method of operation - Cold War secrecy. Behind closed doors, trials began yesterday in Xiamen and four other Fujian cities to tackle the downside of opening up China's economy to the world.

Five courthouses were required to handle the sheer number of defendants in the biggest smuggling case in modern Chinese history. At least 200 city and provincial-level officials stand accused of helping the local Fairwell group earn more than £6bn from illicit trading and tax evasion.

Yet even these facts remain to be confirmed. After an 18-month secret investigation by 740 policemen, customs officers and anti-corruption experts, the largest crime squad assembled in China, the government has released no details about the defendants or the charges against them.

Only a handful of state media, which have barely covered the growing scandal, will be permitted court access, and foreign journalists are barred. For information on the Xiamen case, Chinese turn to the internet, where reporters post information squeezed from local courts and officials. Chinese websites predict death sentences for at least 10 officials who each pocketed bribes worth £430,000.

Many analysts believe the trial outcomes are already settled. At the weekend, the governor of Fujian told a news conference: "The smuggling case has basically been wrapped up."

The secrecy surrounding the trials, strict even by Chinese standards, is better understood by considering how high the web of corruption spins. People implicated in the shady business deals of the Fairwell founder, Lai Cheong Sing, include the former head of military intelligence, Ji Shengde, and the wife of the Peking Communist Party secretary Jia Qinglin, a key protégé of President Jiang Zemin.

Investigators who raided Fairwell headquarters found plenty of material, such as a bribe-by-bribe list of local government officials who accepted Lai's generosity. Even more revealing were the videotapes Lai secretly made of officials he invited to his Red Mansion, a luxurious brothel on the edge of town. Lai blackmailed them into condoning smuggling that ranged from oil and cars to arms and cigarettes.

But few Chinese expect big names to suffer embarrassment from the trials. "The Fairwell case involved so many central government leaders," a political commentator in Peking told The Independent yesterday. "But nobody above the provincial level will be punished. Lai is now living very comfortably in Thailand, but he has so much dirt on the leadership, they don't dare try to get him back."

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