The classified report didn't seem all that unusual. It told the story of Li Tiecheng, a Communist Party secretary in an impoverished county in Jilin province, who turned out to be blatantly corrupt. During his six-year tenure, Li took bribes from 162 officials, totaling roughly 10 percent of the county's $2 million annual budget. That a provincial official would line his pockets wasn't itself remarkable. But that President Hu Jintao might comment on it certainly was. At a February meeting of the antigraft commission, Hu supposedly put down his speech and, singling out the case, asked: "Are there any more people like this among our top officials?"
Of course, everyone knows the answer to that one. What's less clear is whether the populist image Hu and party spinmeisters have been cultivating for him is to be believed. Soon even that may not matter: the risks associated with cracking down on corruption--sacking VIPs and party colleagues--are rapidly being eclipsed by the risks of not cracking down. Since November, Hu has gotten rid of eight cabinet-level officials for graft and state prosecutors expect more big cases this year. Separate antigraft teams have been dispatched to various provinces and cities to confiscate the passports of top officials whom they fear might be at risk of fleeing with state funds, according to a local magazine.
Hu has also reportedly met a number of experts on reform and governance this year, including several prominent intellectuals whose critical writings have angered more hard-line authorities. But some question how much Hu can accomplish, given that he must rely on the party to police itself. Promoting his image as an anti-corruption activist may serve only to raise unrealistic expectations. "Every time a new generation of leaders take office, everybody has high hopes that things will take a turn for the better," says a local Chinese journalist.
Official corruption remains the No. 1 concern of Chinese citizens in opinion polls. Thus far Hu has tried to parry public pressures with stopgap measures, incremental reforms and selective punishment of …