The moment the light went off in the small room in Fenghuo village, Wu Fang knew something terrible was going to happen to her. Three women from the village rushed in, knocked Wu Fang to the floor and began stripping her. Then her husband threw sulfuric acid on her face, chest and thighs. She let out a long cry. The women held her down, spreading acid over her face and breasts, disfiguring her horribly for the rest of her life. Twelve years later, she still seeks words for the pain: "It was like being thrown into the sky and hurled around."
Worse than the memory of the pain is the wall of silence that immediately fell around the village chiefs implicated in the attack, which arose from the village's refusal to allow Wu Fang to divorce her husband. Powerful and corrupt, these officials from Fenghuo village in northwestern Shaanxi province have consistently blocked all attempts by Wu Fang to bring them to justice. When a Chinese newspaper wrote a story sympathetic to her case in 1996, the village sued for libel--and won last June in a local court. "Everywhere in China there are outside factors that interfere with legal cases," says Wang Weiguo, professor of political science and law at China University in Beijing, who represented the newspaper in the case.
For centuries China's rulers have struggled with corruption and lawlessness across their empire. Entire dynasties have collapsed after losing control over unruly provincial governors, warlords and self-enriching local officials. Today China's Communist Party is facing the same old nightmare--rampant abuse of power by officials at all levels and a growing level of discontent among ordinary people over the unaccountability of those who rule them. Every month sees protests by farmers or workers against graft and illegal tax gouging by local officials. President Jiang Zemin fears corruption could mobilize angry masses nationwide against the Communist Party and even bring down the government, and he has issued edicts to crack down on graft.
There have been some high-profile busts of crooked officials. Last month 14 people were sentenced to death in connection with a $10 billion oil-, car- and cigarette-smuggling case in the southern port city of Xiamen. The alleged ringleader Lai Changzing is currently fighting extradition in Canada. But despite Jiang's declaration of war on financial scams, cases involving powerful officials often get held up or dismissed because of "lack of evidence." Jiang himself is not above protecting his friends. When the Xiamen case was on the verge of implicating the wife of Beijing party chief Jia Qinglin, a friend of Jiang's, the President effectively blocked the investigation by appearing on television last January with Jia beside him. The corrosive effects of corruption have bitten deeply into China's body politic and will take more than a few decrees to be washed away.