Top China official is sentenced to death

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The Independent Online

A Peking court sentenced a senior Communist Party official to death yesterday for taking bribes worth US$5m (£3.3m).

A Peking court sentenced a senior Communist Party official to death yesterday for taking bribes worth US$5m (£3.3m).

It is the Chinese government's latest attempt to stamp out the rampant corruption that undermines its hold on power. Bar an unlikely stay of execution, Cheng Kejie will become the highest-ranking official to be executed for corruption since the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Cheng, a former vicechairman of the National People's Congress, was convicted for "soliciting and accepting bribery" from 1992 to 1998 during his tenure as chairman of the Guangxi provincial government. The verdict added that "all of his personal possessions are to be confiscated and his political rights deprived of for life".

Or what is left of it, because although 66-year-old Cheng has 10 days to appeal, his sentence is expected to be upheld.

The state-run news agency Xinhua commented: "The crimes he committed as a senior official tarnished the clean and honest image of government workers and discredited the fine reputation of government officials." For most ordinary Chinese, the case merely corroborated the poor reputation of government officials and confirmed widely held suspicions that China's rulers, accountable to no ballot box, freely exploit their positions to amass personal fortunes.

When Cheng was stripped of his position and party membership in April, Xinhua gravely intoned that he had "abandoned his ideals and belief in communism, [and fallen] victim to the temptations of women and money". Since then, state media have divulged some tantalising details about the errant legislator who was captured on film cleaning out the public purse at a casino in Macau, with his mistress, Li Ping, who is also married.

Cheng had previously appeared on national television complaining he could not sleep for worrying about the 7 million poor in his backward province in China's south-west. Now Chinese newspapers speculate his insomnia was due to hisdemanding mistress, with her penchant for diamond rings and expensive watches. Together, they negotiated bribes and kickbacks from officials seeking promotion and companies seeking commodity quotas and land development projects.

In recent years, the leadership in Peking has accepted that corruption is a main reason for anger against the Communist Party. Cheng is the most senior figure to fall into the government's dragnet to date. His sentence follows the executions of Hu Changqing, the former vice-governor of Jiangxi province, and Li Chenglong, the former vice-mayor of Guiyang in Guangxi, in March and April this year. Official corruption is so pervasive that Chinese talk about the "59-year-old phenomenon", whereby officials, one year away retirement and the end of their usefulness to bribe-givers, abuse every opportunity for graft.

Rampant corruption was a key factor in the downfall of Chiang Kai-shek and the victory of Chairman Mao in 1949. The age-old curse is reaching crisis levels again, from the top to the bottom of society.

Chinese reporters have begun pushing the boundaries of investigative journalism, yet state media said little about a massive corruption case rocking the coastal city of Xiamen, and there is local pressure to keep reporters out.

"Cheng's crime shows that corruption is getting more serious," the veteran journalist Dai Huang, author of many articles exposing corrupt officials, told The Independent. "If the government does not do anything about it, the situation will get out of control. [Premier] Zhu Rongji really wants to crack down, or people will totally lose trust in the Party."