China's Communist Party leaders have quietly filled top anti-corruption spots in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin this week in a bid to stem embarrassing scandals linked to public pension funds and the construction industry.
The move is also aimed at sending a signal to ordinary Chinese and party members that the administration of President Hu Jintao is serious about cracking down on power abuses before the 17th Party Congress next fall. Senior officials have said they consider corruption a grave threat to the legitimacy of the one-party state.
Ma Zhipeng, a standing committee member of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has been appointed head of Beijing's anti-corruption office, the People's Daily newspaper reported Tuesday on its website.
The move follows the June ouster of a Beijing vice mayor responsible for $40 billion in infrastructure spending leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Zang Xianfu, a deputy secretary of the Work Commission for Central Government Organs, was named head of the Tianjin Commission for Discipline Inspection, a Beijing-backed newspaper in Hong Kong reported Wednesday.
And Shen Deyong, a former Supreme Court vice president, was appointed Shanghai's anti-graft head after the Communist Party secretary of China's most international city, Chen Liangyu, was dismissed in September. There was no formal announcement of Shen's move, but state-run media have in recent days started referring to him as secretary of the Shanghai Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Although Hu has a reputation for tackling corruption more aggressively than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, many analysts believe the problem is so widespread that the party risks collapse if it adopts a zero-tolerance policy. Others say anti-graft campaigns are selective, often tied to ulterior political motives.
Chen, for instance, who was implicated for allowing $400 million in pension fund assets to be used in speculative real estate and toll road investments, was seen as a Jiang supporter who defied Hu's call to tamp down economic growth in Shanghai.
The latest moves place Hu allies in key positions and send a warning to cadres in smaller cities. But some question the effectiveness of the moves.
"They're using these appointments to demonstrate their intention to fight corruption, yet they don't make any new appointments to judicial bodies," said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. "That gives you some idea of their priorities."
Under the Chinese system, the Communist Party is above the law, and there is little indication this situation will change any time soon.
Party leaders also have resisted calls for internal checks and balances to address what some see as a flawed structure.
The appointments announced this week maintain a system under which anti-corruption heads are in effect held accountable to the party secretary they're supposed to monitor.