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Official's death at golf course raises graft issue
( 2003-11-11 09:28) (China Daily HK Edition)

A foursome is a pretty common sight on a golf course but the presence of a fifth person, a Party official in Hunan Province, has raised questions relating to corruption.

Li Zhen'e, the Party secretary of Changsha County, in south China's Hunan Province. [China Daily/file]

On November 1, the Party secretary of Changsha County was killed in an accident while driving a golf cart. While all agreed that it was tragic, many niggling queries were raised - and would not go away by bland official responses.

What was Li Zhen'e doing on a golf course?

In China, it is a game for the very wealthy. A public servant, with his meagre salary, cannot afford to pay out of his pocket. So, who was footing the bill?

Without responding directly, the local authority - after a few days of vacillation - released the findings of its investigation: Secretary Li, together with two senior executives from a local automaker, wined and dined two Japanese businessmen. After lunch, they showed the guests around the course. Around 4 pm, in a hurry to another meeting, Li jumped on the battery-powered golf cart and tried to drive it himself. He lost control and the cart tumbled down a 10-metre slope onto a cement road.

The conclusion: he died on his job.

But did he, is the question raised by netizens on numerous websites such as sohu.com and people.com.cn. Or was he in between appointments, which would mean he died on his way to work?

Death in the line of duty would prove Li's innocence and enable his family to be eligible for full benefits.

The finer points aside, the main question raised is: What was he doing on the golf course? Was it part of job to do public relations work for the Party or was he there on behalf of the auto-parts company?

Sanxiang Metropolis News, a local newspaper, reported that "Li's car" crashed into a ditch after he had finished a round of business negotiations at the clubhouse without specifying in what capacity he was attending the talks.

Whatever be the truth, public perception of corrupt officials seems to have been reinforced: Officials squander taxpayers' money on an extravagant lifestyle that is geared towards pleasing themselves rather than for any public good, the netizens complain.

Local officials clarified that Li was, indeed, principled and not corrupt. They pointed to the fact that more than 200 of his constituents turned up at his funeral to mourn him. He did a lot for the local people, one explained.

A media commentator in Guangzhou wrote that it was simply beside the point to infer whether or not Li was a good bureaucrat because he died on a golf course. Chinese officials routinely mix business with pleasure; and he could just as well have given up his weekend to attract more foreign capital to his county.

Tong Tieding, the commentator, said that a proper job description should clearly differentiate official affairs from private ones. The inability to tell them apart has resulted in this clean-corrupt dichotomy. If he was conducting business, he was a good official; otherwise, he was crooked.

This simplistic view does not take into account China's reality, Tong said. So, why would so many people jump to the conclusion that Li was corrupt?

Because this kind of corruption is so pervasive that the public has a tendency to associate playing golf with it, said Liu Manping, another commentator. ''It is ingrained thinking,'' he said.

"It means it's high time our officials spruced up their public image."

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