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China warns Communist Party officials

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BEIJING — Details emerged of more high-level corruption scandals Tuesday as China told Communist Party officials to consider a death sentence passed on former top lawmaker Cheng Kejie a warning to clean up their acts.

The party's discipline, propaganda and personnel offices issued a circular pledging to use Cheng's sentence as a "negative example and cautionary lesson" over the next few months, the People's Daily said.

Cheng, former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, or parliament, was sentenced on Monday for taking 41 million yuan ($5 million) in bribes as head of government in the southwestern region of Guangxi.

If the sentence is carried out he would be the most senior Chinese official to be executed for corruption since the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Analysts say Cheng's sentence portends further executions following the exposure of more high-level corruption scandals.

The party's top graft-busting body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, is now investigating provincial tax chief Li Zhen on suspicion of taking bribes worth several billion yuan.

"He was arrested in March this year for taking bribes of huge amounts of money," said an official of the head of the taxation bureau in the northern province of Hebei. "I have heard it was several billion yuan."

That would put it on a par with a three billion yuan ($360 million) smuggling scandal unfolding in the southeastern city of Xiamen—China's largest smuggling scandal in five decades.

That case—involving smuggled firearms, cars and crude oil—has ensnared top Xiamen police officers, senior bankers, customs agents and the former wife of an ally of President Jiang Zemin in the powerful Politburo. She denies any wrongdoing.

The official said Li's case also involved other high level Hebei officials. He declined to say who else was involved.

Li, 38, previously worked for former Hebei party secretary Cheng Weigao, now head of the Hebei People's Congress—the provincial legislature, the official said.

Hotbeds of smuggling and drug deals

So far this year, graftbusters appear to have focused their efforts on the southern and eastern provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong and Fujian, hotbeds of smuggling and drug trafficking.

Earlier this month, the NPC expelled Fujian lawmaker Xie Yongwu for his role in a smuggling case and police arrested three senior customs officers on smuggling and bribery charges.

Hu Changqing, the former vice governor of eastern Jiangxi province, was executed for corruption in March.

And the deputy head of the Shenzhen legislature was also under investigation for graft, a local government official said.

But the anti-corruption drive appears to be moving towards inland areas and northern provinces.

Earlier this month, police in the northeastern city of Shenyang arrested Liu Yong, a member of the city's legislature, for running a gang which killed or injured more than 30 people to protect his business, according to local media reports.

Wei Jianxing, the party's top anti-corruption official, has also toured western provinces, including Yunnan and Qinghai.

Bribery and threats

However, analysts say the anti-corruption drive is hampered by local officials, some with links to organised crime, who try to extort investigators.

"It's quite common, especially at the grass-roots level where local party bosses consider themselves local emperors," said one Western diplomat. "They don't really like people coming down to check, especially officials who are not that senior themselves."

"They try bribing them and if that doesn't work, they threaten them."

Concerns about such dangers were highlighted this month when two anti-corruption officials died in a fire at a guesthouse in the city of Shantou in the southern province of Guangdong.

Local police said the fire was caused by an overheated vacuum flask. But some media reports have quoted local officials as saying the circumstances of the fire were suspicious.