Justice minister held in Chinese corruption purge

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The Independent Online

He should have known better. As China's Minister of Justice, Gao Changli fought to strengthen the rule of law in a corrupt system of government. "All state bodies and officials must strictly abide by the constitution and other laws," Mr Gao warned last year, when China finally enshrined the rule of law in its constitution. "Any abuse of power should not be tolerated." Including his own.

He should have known better. As China's Minister of Justice, Gao Changli fought to strengthen the rule of law in a corrupt system of government. "All state bodies and officials must strictly abide by the constitution and other laws," Mr Gao warned last year, when China finally enshrined the rule of law in its constitution. "Any abuse of power should not be tolerated." Including his own.

While official secrecy still shrouds the case, and the Chinese media remains silent, The Independent has learned that on Monday the minister's trip to workended with his detention for unspecified "economic problems". Colleagues whisper about the influence of Mr Gao's mistress and their joint embezzlement of public funds.

Mr Gao is among the most senior officials to fall in the continuing crackdown against corruption in China's bureaucracy and in society at large. In September, a vice-chairman of China's rubber-stamp parliament was executed for taking £3.3m in bribes. Until then, the anti-graft campaign had mostly spared cabinet members like Mr Gao. But in China one lives and dies by one's connections, and the Justice Minister has made some powerful enemies.

According to a Beijing lawyer familiar with the case, Mr Gao disappeared this summer for a dirty weekend with his mistress at Beidaihe, the Communist Party's favourite seaside resort, just when Luo Gan, Secretary General of China's "cabinet", the State Council, was desperate to locate him.

The minister, whose charges include over 1.4 million inmates of Chinese prisons, and another 300,000 held in labour camps, also incurred the wrath of President Jiang Zemin when the latter learned that prisoners in southern China were bribing guards to let prostitutes into their cells. President Jiang reportedly complained that corruption in the legal system is worse now than it was before 1949, the year the Communists took power in China.

Word of Mr Gao's arrest has surprised many ministry officials who saw their boss as a popular man of the people for his successful efforts to spread legal aid centres and hotlines across this vast land. But 10 months ago, a tip-off from within the Justice Ministry led the Ministry of Supervision to launch an investigation. The authorities are also said to have recently arrested a vice-minister of the notoriously corrupt Water Resources Ministry.

"This sends a message that nobody is invulnerable," said Lawrence Brahm, of the investment advisory Naga Corporation in Beijing. "The Communist Party recognises that unless it does something, corruption will eat up the very economic reforms which have given birth to corruption."

"Corruption is the natural result of China's transition from a non-materialistic society to one of the most materialistic in the world," he added. "Officials still earn 1,000 yuan [£79] per month, yet they see developers making millions overnight."

The shortfall in official salaries was expertly exploited by entrepreneur Lai Changxing, the criminal mastermind behind a $5bn smuggling scandal uncovered this year in the port of Xiamen. Lai bribed and compromised countless local officials, at least 11 of whom have recently been sentenced to death. Lai, meanwhile, is battling for refugee status in a Canadian court.

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