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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2004

A lonely stand against the party machine

HONG KONG -- The extraordinary story of a county Communist Party secretary's lonely six-year battle against corruption in coastal Fujian Province, unveiled last week on the Web site of the official People's Daily newspaper, on one level marks a personal crusade.

On a different level it marks another step in the tug of war between the country's increasingly assertive press and the Communist Party's desire to hold onto its monopoly on power by keeping the media on a tight leash. It also highlights the ambiguous role of the press in the campaign against corruption, one of the country's most serious problems.

Huang Jingao, party secretary of Lianjiang County, disclosed in an open letter posted on the People's Daily Web site that he had to wear a bulletproof vest for the last six years because of numerous threats on his life. According to Huang, his campaign against corruption began in 1998 when, as director of the finance commission in Fuzhou, the provincial capital, he investigated a gang that controlled the pig-slaughter market. He said it took four years to bring the gang to justice, during which time he received threatening letters and phone calls.

In early 2002, he became party secretary of Lianjiang -- a county that includes the island of Matsu, which is under Taiwan's control. Soon, he began investigating accusations that his predecessor had colluded with real-estate developers to sell them government land at low prices while depriving displaced residents of proper compensation. Huang said he could not get any cooperation from other officials. "I was puzzled," he said.

The appearance of the letter on the Web site of the People's Daily suggests, at the least, a degree of official sympathy for Huang. Soon other newspapers and Web sites began to carry the story. The English-language China Daily, too, carried accounts of Huang's plight. "Huang's resorting to the media shows his confidence in the power of public opinion," the China Daily commented. "The media has played an increasingly bigger role in checking and uncovering corruption, demonstrating that outside supervision is also conducive to the anti-corruption fight."

Another paper, the Beijing News, commented that the fight against corruption should "rely on legislation and regulations" rather than on orders from senior officials. Clearly sympathetic to Huang, the paper declared: "If a corrupt official finds he is under investigation by another official, he will try to protect himself by abusing the public power he is entrusted with, either to stop such an investigation, move the investigating official out of the post or even physically threaten the official."

By Monday, however, the tide had turned against Huang. The People's Daily removed from its Web site the open letter from Huang and the party's publicity department reportedly ordered other newspapers and broadcasters not to say anything more on the issue.

These moves followed action by the provincial authorities in Fujian, who published an 11,000-word defense on their Web site. They denied Huang's charges and accused him of lacking political awareness and of ignoring party discipline and the overall situation.

A joint statement by the Fuzhou party committee and the municipal government also charged that Huang, by writing to the People's Daily, had provided ammunition to "hostile forces in the West and Taiwan" and had "caused political instability."

It is perhaps inevitable that the central authorities would support the provincial officials rather than a lowly county party secretary, although it is entirely possible that the central government will conduct its own investigation into the whole affair. Still, it does appear that Huang can no longer work effectively in Fujian province.

As is often the case, the Lianjiang affair is unlikely to be straightforward. It is likely to involve different local interests and, in all likelihood, various interests at the central level as well. But at the very least this case shows that the existing system for investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption do not work sufficiently well.

One of the most important questions raised by the Huang Jingao case is what the role of the media should be in the campaign against corruption. An unfettered media can play a major role in the anticorruption campaign.

Yet the party is fearful that giving the media free rein may result in the disclosure of embarrassing stories about key officials, not only in the provinces but in Beijing as well. But this is a nettle that the party must grasp.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

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