Yesterday, Sino-Gist commented on new proposed changes to China's capital punishment laws, whereby 13 economic crimes would no longer warrant the death penalty. However, an announcement by Chinese media today of the sentencing of Zheng Shaodong (the former assistant Minister for Public Security) to death with a 2 year reprieve shows how committed the Chinese authorities remain to making a firm example of those who harm the public interest.
According to the Xi'an Intermediate People's Court, over the course of 6 years from 2001 Zheng used his various positions (including being deputy head of Guangdong's Department of Public Security from 2001 until 2005, before being promoted to assistant Minister for Public Security) to amass over 1 million US dollars in bribes. The court also found him guilty of abusing his offices.
Death sentences for top officials are not uncommon in China. Recently, in July 2010, Chen Shaoji (the head of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference in Guangdong province) was given a similar suspended capital sentence for allegedly accepting over 4 million US dollars in bribes between 1992 and 2009. Such verdicts for high profile figures serve two key purposes. Firstly, after past public complaints about the widespread corruption in Chinese political life, the Party and the state authorities use cases like Zheng Shaodong's to clearly distance themselves from this climate of unscrupulous conduct. However, as a Reuters article commented when reporting on Chen Shaoji's sentencing, actions against top officials can also be heavily influenced by politics. Indeed, Reuters suggested that Chen's arrest can be seen as part of a wider purge of the Guangdong political scene by Wang Yang, the region's party secretary (and a known ally of Hu Jintao). With a leadership change due in 2012 at the next CCP Congress, provincial Party figures like Wang Yang are (in the words of Reuters) 'jockeying for position'.
Most probably, after Zheng's two year probationary period has elapsed his sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment. However, with the Xi'an court's verdict also including the removal of all of his political rights, it seems unlikely that Zheng will be a political phoenix. Even if he still has some allies in the Party, proven charges of corruption are much harder to work around than ideological crimes. Although there may come a time when China no longer views corruption as a crime worthy of capital or life sentences, the continuing 'gray income' problem in Chinese official life makes it seem unlikely that this point will be reached anytime soon.