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If We Punished Executives the Way China Does, We Wouldn't Have Any Left

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The country has something of a moving strike zone regarding executable offenses.

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Here in the United States, we've certainly gotten far more than we ever bargained for when it comes to corruption in the collective C-suite.

A few have been punished. Many have not. In China, though, they kill their Dennis Kozlowskis.

Yesterday, Li Hua, former chairman and general manager of the Sichuan division of China Mobile (CHL), was sentenced to death for accepting more than $2.5 million in bribes.

The Intermediate People's Court in the southwestern city of Panzhihua handed down the verdict with a two-year reprieve, meaning if Li behaves himself, he could skate with a mere slap on the wrist -- life in prison.

The New York Times points out that the "same type of sentence was handed down last month for one of the company's other former executives, Zhang Chunjiang, who once served as vice chairman of China Mobile," which also included "the confiscation of his personal assets and the removal of his political rights."

He was convicted of accepting more than $1.15 million in bribes while working at a series of state-run telecom companies from 1994 to 2009. At least six other executives from China Mobile are under investigation in corruption cases. (It may be worth noting that last week, China Mobile revealed that it "met several times with Steve Jobs to talk about Apple (AAPL) making an iPhone that would support its proprietary 3G standard." Currently, China Unicom (CHU) is the only carrier in China offering the device. )

When Chen Tonghai, former chairman of Sinopec (SNP), was sentenced to death for bribery in 2009, he was also granted a two-year reprieve after confessing to his crimes. According to state-run news service Xinhua, the court cut Chen a break of sorts, stating that for "crimes involving 'extremely large sums of money,' the suspects should be sentenced to death, but 'if they confess or contribute to the handling of relevant cases, they should not get an immediate death penalty in principle.'"

"Chen Tonghai's sentence is a result of people's court's criminal policies and reflects both severe punishment of corruption and the policy of tempering justice with mercy," Xinhua said.

This spring, China revised the law, when authorities deemed 13 non-violent economic offenses to no longer be executable crimes, though Amnesty International called it "legal housekeeping," as the infractions were "all… seldom if ever punished by execution" to begin with.

Andrew Yang of the Laogai Research Foundation -- established in 1992 by Harry Wu, a democracy activist and survivor of the laogai, China's system of forced-labor prison camps -- provided us with a translation of the official list (which just so happens not to include bribery):

  • Smuggling of antiques or cultural relics
  • Smuggling of precious metals
  • Smuggling of rare animals or products
  • Smuggling of ordinary goods or objects
  • Fraudulent activities with financial bills
  • Fraudulent activities involving letters of credit
  • Forged value-added tax invoices
  • False issuance of value-added tax invoices
  • The teaching of criminal methods
  • Theft of ancient human remains or fossils of vertebrates

And finally, simple "theft."

However, the Chinese leadership doesn't rely solely on the legal system to control the business community at large.

From Russell Lee Moses, writing for the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time Report:

After weeks of taking jabs to the chin from an angry microblogging public, leading forces in the [Chinese Communist] Party have decided to punch back. Politburo member Liu Qi visited the Beijing offices of Sina.com's (SINA) popular microblogging service Weibo earlier this week and impressed upon the staff there the need for "the Internet's healthy development"-code words for staying away from topics which attack the rule of the Communist Party or hold officials up for public ridicule.

[…]

Liu's strong-arm visit follows a series of admonitions in the Party media, warning journalists to get back into the government fold and to play the role of conveying to a skeptical society that cadres care.

The hardline view, expressed in a recent article posted in the "People's Forum" run by the official People's Daily, is that microblogging is best confronted, not by embracing it as a way for the public to supervise the Party, but by the Party's "use [of] the mass media to tell the truth."

By all accounts, corruption is so thoroughly ingrained in the operating culture of Chinese officialdom, the roles in this situation seem to be comically reversed.

"There is really no way to control the corruption among Chinese officials," Yang told me in a telephone interview. "If bribery was not punishable by death, corrupt officials would be even bolder in grabbing the public's wealth. And without a free press, the behavior of officials cannot be monitored, so corruption simply runs wild."

Those who are caught are dealt with particularly harshly. And, Chinese justice lacks a particularly, shall we say, even hand. State-run news service Xinhua explains why certain executions are performed more hastily than others:

Corrupt officials, such as former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress Cheng Kejie who was executed in September 2000, former vice governor of Anhui Province Wang Huaizhong who was given a lethal injection in February 2004, and former food and drug administration head Zheng Xiaoyu, executed in July 2007, got immediate death sentences because they "refused to plead guilty" and their bribe-taking "caused extremely serious social impact."

James H. Zimmerman, Jr., Amnesty International's Country Specialist for China, says the execution of government officials for bribery "is fairly common."

In an email message, Zimmerman pointed out that "most have been politically isolated, so they have no one coming to their defense."

The majority of China's citizenry certainly isn't.

As explained by Teng Biao of China's Economic Observer (and translated by Worldcrunch.com), "China is the global leader for the number of corrupt officials who are sentenced to death, and actually executed each year. But, judging by the seemingly endless 'public demand' for this kind of punishment and the surging popular anger, it would seem that there is actually not enough of it."

And Joshua Rosenzweig, former senior researcher at the Di Hua Foundation, a human rights organization based in San Francisco and Hong Kong, told the Washington Post that "there still is a very strong sense that corrupt officials must die among the Chinese population at large. The revulsion for that offense is so strong that there would be a potential political cost to eliminating the death penalty for corruption."

Not altogether surprisingly, the specter of death doesn't necessarily act as a deterrent.

In 2009, a six-year old schoolgirl in southern China was asked by a television reporter what she wanted to become when she grew up.

"When I grow up I want to be an official," she replied.

"What kind of official?" asked the interviewer.

"A corrupt official because corrupt officials have a lot of things," she said.
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