China launches crackdown on corruption

Warning shot for ruling elite as son of high-ranking official and Deng associate is sentenced to death
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A Chinese court has passed a suspended death sentence for corruption on the son of a high-ranking party official, the first time one of the so-called "princelings" has been toppled in the current anti-graft campaign.

The sentence strikes at the heart of China's political elite, as both the defendant and his father have close ties to the family of Deng Xiaoping, the country's frail 92-year-old patriarch.

Only sketchy details of the Peking court hearing emerged over the weekend. Zhou Beifang, a high-flying executive in one of China's biggest state corporations, was sentenced to death, suspended for two years.

Last month, court officials confirmed that Mr Zhou had been charged in a "very large" case of taking and offering bribes and concealing illegal property. Suspended death sentences are often commuted to life imprisonment.

Over the past two years, Peking has been rocked by a succession of huge, possibly inter-related corruption scandals which have resulted in the suicide of a deputy city mayor, the sacking of the city's Communist Party chief, and the arrest of about 45 top officials, including Mr Zhou.

The amount of money involved is unknown. Last week the official Outlook magazine published a figure of about pounds 1.5bn, but other much higher sums have been reported. Until now, however, no politically sensitive figure has actually been sentenced in court.

The fact that Mr Zhou has received such a heavy sentence sends a clear message to the Deng family and their circle that the old man's patronage can no longer safeguard them, as it did until recently.

Mr Zhou was in charge of the Hong Kong-listed Arms of Shougang Capital Iron and Steel Works, one of the most important industrial conglomerates in China.

Crucially, he was a close associate of Mr Deng's youngest son, Deng Zhifang, who was boss of one of Shougang's Hong Kong companies.

Mr Zhou's career bore all the hallmarks of having a helping hand from his father, Zhou Guanwu. The elder Zhou, aged 78, was formerly the chairman and party secretary of the Shougang empire, and a very close friend of Deng Xiaoping.

Targeting such a well-connected individual would not be possible without the go-ahead from President Jiang Zemin, who rose to power because of the elder Deng's backing.

The sentence suggests Mr Jiang is very confident of his stature at the moment, and that he wants to warn the Deng children to stay out of any political manoeuvrings after their ailing father dies.

The younger Zhou was arrested in February 1995, and his father resigned his Shougang posts the next day. Little was then heard about the high- level corruption purge until April that year when Wang Baosen, a deputy city mayor, shot himself, and Chen Xitong, the city party secretary, was removed from his job.

Mr Chen has never been officially charged, nor thrown out of the party, and is believed to be living comfortably under house arrest.

The ousting of Mr Chen was very popular among ordinary Pekingers, but cynicism has since set in because he has not been punished.

To date, the corruption crackdown has focused only on middle and lower level cadres, with many death sentences and heavy jail terms. The state- controlled media at the weekend made no mention of the suspended death sentence, but did report a big restructuring of the Shougang group.