By Terril Yue Jones and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China formally charged a former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, with corruption and abuse of power on Wednesday, setting up the first test of newly installed President Xi Jinping's resolve to crack down on pervasive graft.
Liu faces either a lengthy jail sentence and possibly death. How severely he is dealt with will be an indicator of how seriously authorities will take the fight against corruption, one of the pillars of Xi's fledgling administration.
Skeptics say corruption is too deeply rooted to be tackled effectively. But some people see progress under Xi, who became Communist Party secretary last November and president in March.
"This government is showing some determination to go after corruption", said Wang Quanjie, a professor at Yantai University in Shandong province and a proponent of reform. "The government realizes that if it doesn't tackle corruption, it will be very dangerous for them".
"No matter who is in charge, fighting corruption is the key task, the biggest duty", Wang said.
Liu "engaged in malpractice for personal gains and abuse of power, leading to huge losses of public properties and of the interests of the state and its people", the official Xinhua news agency said.
"As a state functionary, Liu sought benefits for others by taking advantage of his position, and accepted financial incentives from others, which were of a huge amount", the news agency added.
Liu took bribes and misused his position to help the chairman of an investment company get illegal profits, according to previous accusations leveled by state media.
The Liu case "proves the problems in the system, a system that gives everyone a chance to be corrupt", said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and an outspoken critic of a system he says breeds corruption.
"It's a system without press freedom, without government transparency, without an independent judiciary, where there is no supervision by a parliament", He told Reuters by telephone.
FLIES AND TIGERS
In January, Xi said anti-corruption efforts should target low-ranking "flies" as well as powerful "tigers".
But the effort has netted only a few high-ranking violators, among them Sichuan province deputy Communist Party boss Li Chuncheng and reportedly Politburo member Li Jianguo, both for "serious" disciplinary issues.
China's railway system has faced numerous problems over the past few years, including heavy debts from funding new high-speed lines, waste and fraud.
The government has pledged to open the rail industry to private investment on an unprecedented scale.
The ministry suffered a big blow to its image when a crash in 2011 between two high-speed trains killed 40 people.
Liu was sacked in February last year and later expelled from the Communist Party. He had successfully resisted a merger with the Ministry of Transport six years ago, but the government announced in March that the two ministries would be merged.
While Liu's case attracted much attention when it first broke, it has been overshadowed by the much more sensational case of the former party chief of Chongqing, the ambitious Bo Xilai.
Bo's downfall last year amid lurid accusations of murder and diplomatic intrigue caused division and uncertainty as the party prepared a transfer of power to a new generation of leaders.
The government has yet to announce a trial date for Bo, or what charges he will face.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)