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China cracks down on rank corruption

This week the most senior official to be caught in a scandal was arrested and another was executed.

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He's a typical low-ranking, modestly paid government official, but he pockets an extra $200 every so often - a kickback for being part of a smuggling ring that sends unemployed Chinese to neighboring South Korea.

"Chinese need jobs. South Korea needs workers," says the official, who requested anonymity. "It's a win-win situation."

Echoing a common sentiment, the immigration official typifies the attitude of many here toward corruption, a fixture of daily life. But with a string of high-profile crackdowns that is reaching ever higher into the echelons of power, China is now attempting to rein in illegal practices that are seen as a threat to the government and a barrier to economic progress.

Chinese economists estimate that in the 20 years since China started experimenting with capitalism, government officials have siphoned off $3.6 trillion in government funds and state assets. On Tuesday, Cheng Kejie, a deputy chairman of the national legislature, was expelled from the Communist Party and fired for accepting more than $4 million in bribes. In the past month, two other southern officials have been executed for their malfeasance, a sentence Mr. Cheng faces if convicted. And in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, hundreds of people have been implicated in a scandal that first surfaced last fall and is still being investigated.

While China's leadership is worried that the scandals are weakening its hold on power, Premier Zhu Rongji has also acknowledged the rising popular anger at the government's failure to stop the epidemic. "Bureaucracy, formalism, falsification, and exaggeration are rampant," Mr. Zhu said during a speech last month before the legislature, the National People's Congress. "Certain types of corruption and undesirable practices have not been brought under control."

China's leaders have reason to fear corruption. It helped topple the Ming dynasty in the 1600s and led to the abdication of the last emperor in 1912. Students in the 1989 pro-democracy protests also decried corruption.

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