China spies anti-graft revolution
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The power center of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is likely to introduce unprecedented, radical measures to crack down on official corruption, recent reports suggest.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate is considering the use of "modern scientific and technological means", or secret investigative methods, to collect evidence against suspected corrupt officials, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported last week. The methods include wiretapping, hypnotism, monitoring personal mail and the use of global satellite positioning systems.

Authorities in Shenzhen have also unveiled a new regulation which stipulates that officials whose spouses or children hold foreign passports or permanent residency (including in Hong Kong or Macau) must be barred from being appointed to any "responsible" posts.

These anti-graft moves, if implemented, would have a far-reaching impact on Chinese society. Thus, the reports have aroused public interest and controversy inside China, though been largely neglected by overseas media.

Zhu Xiaoqing, China's deputy procurator-general, said the country would launch a new round of judiciary reforms in the coming year. Among other things, the Supreme People's Procuratorate was considering adopting the "unconventional" methods listed above.

In places with a rule of law and the separation of administrative, legislative and judicial powers, it is normal for relevant law enforcement forces (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States or the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong) to use secretive methods during corruption investigations.

But in China, this would be revolutionary. Since its founding, communist China has adopted a "proletarian dictatorship", which means the monopoly of all power by the CCP; separation of powers is out of the question. Today, Chinese officials still echo late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's statement that "separation of the three powers [the legislative, executive and judiciary] is not applicable to China's circumstances".

In its one-party dictatorship, the CCP considers all members as "comrades" and bans any government organ from spying on them. In such a system, it is unrealistic to expect one wing, in this case the judicial, to perform independent checks on any of the others.

This has been an ironclad discipline since the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949 that was reportedly started by the PRC's founder, chairman Mao Zedong.

In the early 1960s, the then director of the general office of the CCP Central Committee, Yang Shangkun (who later became the country's president from 1988 to 1993), ordered hidden tape recorders to be installed in Mao's residence and his private train, without notifying the chairman.

After his activity was uncovered, Yang explained that he wanted Mao's words - no matter how informal - recorded for posterity. Mao angrily rebuked Yang for spying on him (some analysts say he feared one-day contradicting himself on tape). No one has dared take similar action since. Even during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when many revolutionary veterans (including Yang) were sidelined and persecuted, no illicit surveillance tactics were used.

Today, public security police and the secret police agency, the Ministry of State Security, are authorized to use intrusive investigative methods only in cases concerning public or state security - the methods are reserved for use against enemies of the state or society.

China's procuratorate (public prosecutors) at all levels - the main forces against official corruption - are not authorized to use these extraordinary methods. According to a joint circular in 1989 by the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security, "In general, no technical [secret] means should be used in economic cases ... If there is such a need the procuratorate concerned must ask for the cooperation of the public security."

As deputy procurator-general, Zhu's mention of adopting "unconventional" methods should be taken seriously. If public prosecutors are allowed to use spying techniques to monitor suspected corrupt officials, it could be a huge breakthrough in the country, both legally and ideologically.

Firstly, it means a step towards some sort of "separation of powers", allowing judicial independence in the country (though still under the CCP's leadership). Secondly, allowing the main anti-graft watchdog to spy on officials' activities could be a deterrent. "If one is aware that he has a hidden eye watching him, a hidden ear listening to him, he will no doubt have to be more careful," said one official in Shenzhen.

That fact that Zhu has chosen now to make this comment suggests that the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, may consider the proposal in its annual session in March and give the green light. It is a common practice in China for policy proposals to be "leaked" beforehand to test public opinion.

Analysts say the plan has some obstacles. For instance, who will authorize the use of secret investigative methods? Will it be possible to prevent public prosecutors from abusing their new powers? Despite such doubts, the move could improve China's rule of law in regard to official corruption.

Exposing 'naked officials'
Observers say Shenzhen authorities' new restrictions on promotion for officials whose spouses or children have emigrated abroad is also a sign of progress. It is probably aimed at so-called "naked officials", who try to gain permanent resident status overseas by gradually stashing relatives and assets abroad in places that lie outside China's legal jurisdiction.

With their spouses or children established in places such as Hong Kong, Macau or even Taiwan, the officials are unencumbered or "naked" enough to make a hasty escape from China when prosecution is imminent. Even if caught, the official's relatives can at least live in luxury overseas.

Public anger has grown with the exposure of increasing numbers of "naked officials". Hence Shenzhen, often a petri dish for legal or economic reforms before they are implemented nationwide, has introduced the promotion ban.

Critics say the measure is hardly a deterrent, pointing to corruption among lower ranks and arguing that "naked officials" should be punished rather than denied promotion. However, others say that since officials will be made to declare publicly whether their spouse or children reside overseas, they are at least being put under some form of public supervision.