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Chen Tonghai, former general manager and chairman of board of directors of China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC), more than deserves the death sentence with a two-year reprieve that was announced yesterday. The total he received in bribes is close to 200 million yuan ($29 million).

The amount of bribe is not necessarily the sole benchmark for punishment. The core issue is whether the way power was abused by corrupt leaders like Chen will help identify and plug the loopholes in our system.

Chen earned himself notoriety for arbitrary and despotic exercise of power. He behaved as if he was the king of the State-owned petroleum giant. His whim was policy. He was famously quoted as saying, "The 1 or 2 million yuan I spend in socializing a month is a piece of cake compared with the more than 20 billion yuan our firm brings to the State in taxes every year. You can't make money unless you know how to spend it".

It is not so much his arbitrariness as the lack of supervision and control that resulted in his downfall. Without dispute, he was one of the most corrupt officials.

With corrupt leaders being nabbed one after another, few would question the resolve of the central authorities in fighting corruption. However, the fact that increasing numbers of them are being arrested in successive years suggests that the crackdown has failed to serve as a deterrent. And, neither has the supervisory mechanism improved to the point of effectively preventing abuse of power.

The latest stipulations by the central committee of the Communist Party of China on honest and clean management by SOE leaders for the first time explicitly specify what they can't do on their position. The document stipulates SOE leaders cannot decide their own compensations without permission from higher authorities.

Even though the taboos are too self-evident as violations to be laid down in a document, but it was quite common for some SOE leaders to get compensation by way of salary or bonuses as much as millions of yuan a year. When they are appointees of the government, how can they have the authority to fatten their pocket like that? So it is absolutely right for the CPC central committee to be specific on this matter.

However, stipulations alone cannot be expected to stop officials from abuse of power. Some of SOE leaders will quite probably invent ways to circumvent the rules, regulations and restrictions that act as checks and balances. So we need to further improve the supervisory mechanism to make it impossible for them to do so.

Chen's case shows what we really need is effective supervision and transparency. How to institutionalize these is what matters.

(China Daily July 16, 2009)

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