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By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

BEIJING - When Internet activist "Huaguoshan Zongshuji" published a survey of luxury watches worn by Chinese government officials this month, the move was commended by the state media. Yet weeks later the survey was censored - throwing the one-party state's uneasy relationship with corruption into the spotlight.

The government is leading a high-profile campaign against corruption amid growing public frustration. This has included use of the death penalty to make examples of officials who overstep the mark. Last month, the former chairman and general manager at the Sichuan branch of China Mobile, the world's largest mobile carrier going by the number of subscribers, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for taking bribes. A "two-year reprieve" in most cases means that with good behavior the punishment is commuted to life in prison.

Despite the crackdown, bribery and graft are still widespread in massive state-run corporations, with a lack of free media or independent courts paving the way for abuse. China ranked 78th out of 179 countries on the 2010 Transparency International index.
The government is trying to demonstrate to an increasingly angry population that it is addressing the issue head-on, while being careful to protect its credibility by not exposing the true magnitude of official corruption, says Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

"On the one hand, [the government] has to show efforts to fight corruption or they will lose the heart of the people. On the other hand, the leaders don't want to show people they are losing control of corruption," Hu tells Inter Press Service (IPS).

"If the government doesn't fight against corruption fundamentally, discontent among the people will rise and it will endanger the party in power and lead to social riots on a large scale."

The issue came into sharp focus this month when an activist known as Huaguoshan Zongshuji, whose pen name translates as "General Secretary of the Flower and Fruit Mountain", published two Power Point presentations showcasing photographs of officials wearing luxury watches, alongside the brand name and cost of each model.

The official Xinhua news agency applauded the survey, saying that "a simple watch can reveal the hidden corruption of some greedy officials". But the presentation has since been removed from Sino Weibo, the popular micro-blogging site.

Among the 94 officials pictured was Sheng Guangzu, China's new railways minister, who, in various photographs, sported a Rolex and a Piaget reportedly worth more than US$10,000 each, and an Omega valued at just under half that.

The pictures are particularly problematic following the high-speed train crash in July which killed 40 people, and raised doubts whether corrupt officials had made money on on the construction project. The former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, was arrested on suspicion of receiving up to about $150 million in bribes earlier this year according to state media, alongside the former deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang.

"Huaguoshan Zongshuji", who asked for his real name not to be published, tells IPS that he was inspired to carry out the survey after seeing Sheng Guangzu wearing an expensive watch in a photograph taken during the aftermath of the train crash.

"I did research online and found that he wore many different watches," Huaguoshan says. "The first Power Point presentation was downloaded nearly 5,000 times in one month; the second one was downloaded about 2,000 times in few days. At first web users considered it entertainment. But because of the censorship more and more people became curious. The [Communist] party has become a salesman for my works.

"It's obvious that the value of some of the watches worn by the officials does not tally with their income. An official reacted to my survey by publishing an article in his local newspaper saying that he bought a watch from a duty free shop. But we all know that even if he bought it in duty free, the price would not be lower than half that of the price in China," says Huaguoshan, 33, who works as the chief manager of a software company in Shanghai.

The survey provoked a flurry of responses from netizens, many of whom praised Huaguoshan's efforts. "Secretary Hua, thank you for providing a platform for our web users to express our dissatisfaction to the corrupt officials," one Weibo user said. "The harmonization [a reference to the 'harmonious society' promoted by the party, a term often used to justify crackdowns on dissidents] is really so fundamental that all copies of the survey have disappeared," rallied another blogger on Weibo.

In recent years, the government has created a series of laws designed to prevent corruption, including a recent announcement that China's Supreme People's Procuratorate will create an online database of convicted bribers by the end of 2011, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Despite such moves, grassroots campaigns remain in demand. Earlier this year, at least eight Chinese websites were spawned imitating the popular Indian site ipaidabribe.com. Visitors posted tips about local officials' misdemeanors on public online forums such as ibribery.com and woxinghuile.info (which translates as "I paid a bribe"). According to the state mouthpiece China Daily, the anti-bribery websites faced shutdown "because they are not registered with authorities".

"People tried to create websites inspired from India," Liao Ran, senior program coordinator of the Asia-Pacific department of Transparency International tells IPS. "I Paid a Bribe was the first. People are trying to use different ways to communicate - it is very creative.

"The reason [the government shuts down the sites] is very simple. They want to keep a low profile and keep everything under control. China is a feudal society where order is emphasized. They don't want citizen participation - it is simply not part of the vocabulary. [The party] is not very keen on it."

(Inter Press Service)