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An honest China, for all the world to see

Times Staff Writer

China went on the public relations offensive this week, intent on convincing the world it is serious about fighting corruption.

During a carefully controlled trip marked by long, statistics-laden speeches and limited opportunity for questions, foreign and Chinese journalists were led through a series of provincial and local offices in Jiangsu province on China’s prosperous east coast. The central message: We’re a clean, green, corruption-fighting (single-party) machine.

“We have dynamic, open government,” Zhao Kezhi, Jiangsu’s vice governor, said from a stage bedecked with potted ferns and bougainvillea plants. “Let power be exercised in a sunny environment.”

For anyone missing the point, a giant red banner overhead read, “Briefing on Building an Open Government, Combating Corruption and Advocating Clean Politics in Jiangsu Province.”

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China’s political establishment has been rattled in recent months by a series of high-level corruption scandals in Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin. Many of those implicated were relatively high on the Communist Party food chain, including Shanghai party secretary and Politburo member Chen Liangyu. Chen is accused of helping divert more than $400 million in government-held pension funds into risky property and toll road projects.

The party says the crackdown proves how serious it is about fighting the problem, which it has called a cancer threatening its very existence, but some analysts say the campaign is aimed more at removing rivals than attacking dishonesty at its roots.

A three-day trip

The measures Zhao cited in his province’s fight against the dark side included brochures, suggestion boxes, administrative flowcharts, tighter rules for selecting cadres and more open government, all in the interest of narrowing the gap between the party and the people.

About 70% of Jiangsu’s residents are satisfied with the anti-corruption efforts, an 18% jump from three years ago, he added. And though 7,500 officials were disciplined last year, that represents a tiny fraction of the province’s 4.1 million party members, officials said.

Journalists on the three-day trip organized by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, also were invited to visit the Zhangjiagang Public Bidding and Procurement Transaction Center and watch open government in action. The center is reportedly a national model for handling government contracts.

Bidders and judges snapped to attention as the 20 reporters filed into the room, suggesting the choice of this particular venue was not an accident. Banners identified it as an open bidding conference for dental machines needed at Hospital No. 1.

A clerk read out the bidding rules, including a call to keep quiet and “remain fair and just.” With a flourish reminiscent of an aging bullfighter, he twirled each of five sealed envelopes aloft to the click of the cameras. Each bid was read aloud before its price and terms were entered into a computer.

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Bids for the package deal for eight dental machines ranged from $112,000, from a Shanghai company selling South Korean-made units, to $153,000 by a Nanjing company promoting German hardware.

But wait! There’s more!

Reporters were informed that high-tech scanners and overhead projectors would help a randomly selected panel of judges evaluate the bids after the media departed.

More than half the bids included enticements that appeared to complicate any easy comparison. In an offer reminiscent of American late-night-television ads, one bidder said it would throw in a compact disc reader worth $769. Another offered to add five machines at the bargain price of $1,282. A third promised 10 for the price of eight.

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In response to questions, an official at the center acknowledged that bid rigging was difficult to prevent, even at the high-tech facility. But by publicizing bids on a government website, he added, officials hope to limit irregularities. Xu Zhongyuan, the center’s director, said it had received no complaints since the center opened 18 months ago.

Officials at various levels of the Jiangsu government proudly cited the many morality campaigns, education efforts and public appeals underway in the fight against corruption.

“We have an anti-corruption website,” said Qian Zuyuan, secretary of the Zhangjiagang Party Disciplinary Inspection Bureau. “We watch anti-corruption films. We sing anti-corruption songs.”

Officials appeared to pay little attention to any fundamental changes in structure, however, including reform proposals subjecting the Communist Party to the rule of law, imposing checks and balances on well-connected officials or giving the media broad leeway to act as independent watchdogs.

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In choosing Jiangsu as the focus of the trip, Beijing appeared eager to put its best foot forward.

“The corruption situation is, relatively speaking, better in Jiangsu than other less-developed parts of China,” said Wu Zengji, a law professor at Jiangsu Normal University in Nanjing. “Since the market here is more developed, corruption and political intervention is less obvious.”

Spin-meister envy

Less obvious, but hardly unheard of. Shen Shuhui, 29, a government employee in Zhangjiagang, called corruption in the education and medical systems a major problem, as well as the purported lining of pockets among upper-level officials.

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“How can they have so much money and buy so many houses for themselves on their official salaries?” she asked with a laugh.

Though China’s public relations attempts can seem a bit clumsy at times, the country is starting to appreciate the value of getting its message out to the world, experts say. The government recently eased some restrictions on foreign media in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Analysts say this change in thinking is driven in part by grudging admiration for Taiwan’s far superior spin-meister skills in Washington. For example, Beijing’s image took a beating last month after the government tested a missile by shooting down an aging satellite, a move made without warning or much follow-up explanation.

“Historically, China has been awful with public relations, taking the attitude that ‘as long as we say it, it’s true,’ ” said David Wolf, Beijing-based president of Wolf Group Asia, a public relations firm. “While the government is on a learning curve, though, you have to give them credit for trying a bit harder.”

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This week’s effort to highlight anti-corruption efforts has at least three goals, experts said.

It aims to blunt the perception that the campaign’s real objective is the removal of enemies of President Hu Jintao.

It’s also driven by the desire to improve China’s low ranking in some international business and corruption surveys.

Finally, the government recognizes that favorable foreign media reports give it credibility with an increasingly diverse domestic press. “They figure if it passes the smell test abroad, they really have something,” Wolf said.

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Not all citizens are convinced, however.

“Every dynasty throughout history has mounted anti-corruption programs to mask political infighting and fool people,” said Wu Jianhua, 29, a foreign enterprise employee in Suzhou, Jiangsu’s richest city. “The only way we’re really going to stop corruption is to end one-party communist rule.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com


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