China sings virtues of one honest official

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The Independent Online
TERESA POOLE

Peking

It has become a modern-day official parable for China: the tale of the two dead vice-mayors of Peking. Everyone in the city knows that Wang Baosen, the disgraced vice-mayor, shot himself last year when a $37m corruption scandal started to unravel.

But it will come as something of a surprise for the population to learn that his colleague Li Runwu, also a vice-mayor, was a paragon of virtue who in November died of a heart attack. To lose one vice-mayor in such circumstances was a severe embarrassment for China's leaders. But to lose a second vice-mayor just months afterwards turned out not to be careless. It proved a heaven-sent propaganda opportunity; at least that is how the Peking government views it.

Pekingese now have a chance to discover all they need to know about Li's wholesome approach to life, thanks to a play, A Good Man, which opened yesterday in the city-centre Capital Theatre.

For those unable to make the 100 or so performances, there is also a five-part radio series on Li's good deeds, and an exhibition about him in the Worker's Cultural Palace. The implausibility of the storyline may be reminiscent of Cultural Revolution operas, but this is a very modern morality tale.

Thus does the Chinese government hope to dispel the widespread belief that the Peking municipal government was (and maybe still is) rotten to the core. The corruption scandal, which toppled the city's party secretary, Chen Xitong, from his job, was China's highest-level political disgrace for years. Since then, China's leaders have renewed their "crackdown" on corruption, and tried to persuade its people that the Communist Party is not irredeemably venal.

"We will never tolerate such evils. All corrupt officials will be subject to the law," the Prime Minister, Li Peng, told a government anti-corruption conference this month. It is quite a battle: in the first 11 months of 1995, party disciplinary and government supervision bodies in China handled 204,737 cases of corrupt officials above county-head level.

There is nothing subtle about the 12 carefully written scenes which make up A Good Man. In the restaurant episode, the vice-mayor is tucking into a bowl of noodles when a corrupt official comes in and demands lobster "quickly". Li Runwu swings into action, forcing the man to pay for his food. "I'm a peasant's son. I hate corrupted officials; they are like mice eating away at the core of our society," he declares.

At home, the late vice-mayor goodheartedly scolds his wife for only buying in 500lb of cheap cabbage for the winter. "Buy another 500lb," he says. "Don't you see the [high] price of cucumber and tomato in the market? There are always a lot of people coming to our home. We can provide cabbage." Frugality, not meanness, is the intended message.

In a city where all well-placed cadres travel in chauffeur-driven limousines, Li went everywhere by bicycle. He is shown organising the building of a primary school; tramping 500km through the streets to prepare for the 1990 Asian Games; protecting customer rights when a store sells a faulty refrigerator and carrying around a bottle of oxygen in his last days, determined that his heart problems should not halt his work.

Li is depicted castigating his family for wanting apartments and the use of official cars. "We should be careful with anything related to us. Otherwise, even reasonable things turn unreasonable in people's eyes," he lectures. His colleague, Wang Baosen, as Pekingese now know, amassed nearly a dozen fancy villas and apartments, including those used by his mistress.

In the play, the builders who had neglected the primary school to decorate a dance hall are allowed to give their view of official graft and of the difference between da kuan (get-rich-quick businessmen) and da ye (corrupted officials). "Da kuan wear big rings. Da ye have big bellies," says one. "Da ye do not live on a salary. They have power and influence. The common people hate them to the marrow. Those da ye lack virtue, but never lack money."

Ordinary people do indeed get angry about corruption; it is high on the list of complaints in every opinion survey. But are they going to feel reassured by the message of A Good Man, that the Party still has selfless, devoted leaders who work themselves to death for the masses? How did Li Runwu, who could not got anywhere in Peking without spotting human lapses, failed to notice the massive embezzlement and corruption going on within the Peking municipal government itself, the audience may wonder.

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