Party chief is expelled in China corruption scandal

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Peking city's former Communist Party boss has been expelled from the party and his case turned over for criminal prosecution in China's highest- level corruption scandal.

The party's discipline unit said yesterday that Chen Xitong, 67, had embezzled valuable items, squandered public funds, abused his position to help relatives, supported a "corrupt and decadent life", and was largely responsible for the criminal activities of the city's vice-mayor, Wang Baosen, who shot himself in April 1995.

The Chen case has intrigued the Chinese public ever since he was removed from his job as Peking's unpopular party secretary immediately after the Wang Baosen suicide. An internal report accused Mr Chen of illegally amassing pounds 15m of public funds and at least nine city apartments which were distributed to his mistress's family. Yesterday's announcement said Mr Chen had "completely discredited himself as a communist".

When the scandal broke in 1995, it soon became clear that the highest echelons of the Peking party and government structures were riddled with corruption and that many people must have been aware of this. The late Mr Wang was said to be at the centre of a pounds 25m corruption inquiry. In a country where people last year were executed for petty crimes such as VAT receipt fraud and cattle rustling, failure by the authorities to take decisive action against Mr Chen for more than two years was seen as further proof that the anti-corruption crackdown was not tackling the big fish.

The timing of yesterday's announcement was linked to the Communist Party Congress which starts on Friday, a gathering which takes place only once every five years. The run-up to the congress is a time for China to clear the decks of political embarrassments. President Jiang Zemin, who needs this congress to put the seal on his supreme leadership status, will hope to improve his popularity by taking action against Mr Chen.

In surveys, Chinese people regularly put the country's endemic corruption top of their list of grievances. The 1995 toppling of Mr Chen, who had taken a high-profile role in Peking against the democracy movement of 1989, was applauded but cynicism soon took hold when no criminal proceedings were taken. Ordinary Chinese will now wait to see whether the case will come to court. Last month, Mr Chen's son, Chen Xiaotong, was jailed for 12 years for "economic crimes" and the sentence was widely seen as an indirect way of punishing a father who still boasts the protection of high-level connections.

Popular disgust with corruption within the Communist Party is one of many challenges to its authority these days. People complain that they are powerless to fight back against corrupt officials. As a result, there are hints that this congress may see Mr Jiang making a cautious call for political reform to appease public opinion and introduce some accountability into party structures. Liu Ji, a senior adviser to President Jiang Zemin, recently publicly called on the Communist Party to "advance reform of the political system".

At the beginning of this month, Mr Liu was quoted as saying: "When the people have enough food to eat and enough clothes to keep warn and as cultural standards increase, they will then want to express their opinions. The people wanting to take part in political thinking is a good thing, it is a sign of the prosperity and strength of the nation and is also a tide of the age that cannot be turned back." Political reform had lagged far behind economic change, he pointed out.

Such sentiments have not been expressed publicly by officials for almost a decade in China. The question is whether China is willing to restart the political reform debate which was under way until the Tiananmen massacre. Party liberals may feel they can again call for more democracy and accountability within the party structures.