B E I J I N G, Sept. 14, 2000 -- China announced the execution of a senior parliament leader, the highest communist official to be put to death since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Cheng Kejie, the former vice chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the body which runs parliament, was executed today — probably with a bullet to the back of the head, China’s most common form of carrying out death sentences.
He was convicted in July of taking $5 million in bribes, and executed after the Supreme People’s Court approved his death sentence on Sept. 7.
The Supreme People’s court rejected Cheng’s appeal from a Beijing appellate court on Aug. 22. Last July 31, a Beijing intermediate court found him guilty of taking large bribes and sentenced him to death.
“There is no place for corrupt elements to hide in the party,” the state news agency Xinhua said, quoting a commentary piece to be published in the People’s Daily — the Communist Party newspaper.
The article reminds readers that “all citizens are equal before the law.”
As one of 19 vice chairmen of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Cheng was close to parliamentary chief Li Peng, the second-ranking figure in China’s hierarchy.
State television showed unprecedented footage of Cheng, in a blue suit and collarless shirt, looking tense and at times bewildered as he answered prosecutors’ questions and admitted a string of economic crimes during his July trial.
Collaboration With His Lover
Cheng was executed after the Supreme People’s Court approved his death sentence for taking bribes in collaboration with his lover Li Ping, Xinhua reported.
Li, in her 40s, was sentenced to life imprisonment last month for helping Cheng, 67, accumulate illegal wealth when he was government chief of the impoverished southwestern region of Guangxi, a hotbed of smugglers and drug dealers.
Her appeal was turned down last week.
Li escaped the death penalty by cooperating with investigators, giving them details of Cheng’s crimes and helping to recover the booty.
Cheng met Li when she was working in a hotel in Guangxi and the pair used Cheng’s power to live a life of luxury, including gambling binges in the casinos of Macau, the former Portuguese-run enclave, the media reports said.
Li acted as an agent for Cheng to attract bribes, which included diamond rings and expensive watches in return for selling state land cheaply, granting development contracts, commodities quotas and promoting colleagues, police said.
Cheng was said to have been planning to dump his wife and marry Li, who was married to the son of a senior local official.
Sending a Harsh Message
The execution sent a stern warning on the second day of the trials of some 200 people, including senior officials, involved in the worst smuggling scandal of the Communist era.
Courts in the Fujian province cities of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Xiamen on Wednesday began trying officials implicated in a multibillion dollar smuggling scandal.
The Xiamen-based Yuanhua Group is alleged to have smuggled cars, luxury goods, oil and raw materials with the help of city, provincial and national officials.
It is also thought to have ensnared the wife of a close associate of President Jiang Zemin. She has denied wrongdoing and Jiang has stood by his ally, Beijing Communist Party boss Jia Qinglin.
The case is widely seen as a test of China’s commitment to tackle graft. Some analysts say the trials will lead to further executions, while others say the government is reluctant to punish the top echelons of power.
“There’s a possibility that no death penalties will be handed out for any more senior officials, because the leadership believes it will lose face after so many,” said a source familiar with the investigation.
It was not clear if Li’s case was linked to the Xiamen smuggling case.
ABCNEWS' Chito Romana and Reuters contributed to this report.