Tycoon runs for mayor, and has to run for cover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


Property tycoon Cao Tian found out the hard way that a week is a long time in politics.

After announcing online his intention to run for mayor of Zhengzhou, the multimillionaire went into self-imposed hiding after his postings attracted 'special attention' from the authorities.

Cao publicised his intention to run for mayor of the capital of Henan province last month, one of several independent candidates to emerge on the internet.

Then he went silent, changing his mobile number frequently and refusing to talk to any media.

Ten days after his announcement, Cao's home and office were visited by police. He revealed via a friend's Weibo account that Zhengzhou authorities - including the police and tax and land resources officials - had launched an in-depth investigation into his company and himself.

Cao, 43, winner of a 'top 10 influential citizens in Henan' award, is known for his outspoken views.

He once wrote that whenever people were affected by forceful home demolition, the officials responsible should be marched to the prosecutors for punishment and even subjected to criminal charges.

Having put forward his name for candidacy, he set out some of his pledges on June 6 and 7 through the microblog account of his long-time friend Zhu Shunzhong, the editor-in-chief of The Great Wall Monthly magazine.

'Please don't suspect my motivation,' Cao said on Weibo.

'I want to use the election law to move the rigid system of cadre selection/appointment.'

He vowed to stop urban management staff from beating street vendors and said he would fight against corruption.

He also pledged 100 million yuan (HK$120 million) of his own money as a 'deposit for clean governance', which could be given to poor students if he was found to be corrupt as mayor.

He said he would shut down urban management departments and hand their power to law enforcement departments, slash housing prices through market, not administrative, means and cancel all landscaping projects.

Lastly, he said he would not take any salary.

Internet users hailed his move, but others were suspicious that he was promoting only himself.

On June 13, well-connected government friends warned Cao he had better go into hiding for his own safety as his campaign had earned the 'special attention' of the authorities.

No-one in Henan province read about Cao because of a media gag.

A couple of publications outside Hunan were ordered off the story, while a few editors were admonished for forwarding a news story from the Beijing News to mobile phone users.

Investigators appeared to be trying to connect Cao to foreign countries, arousing suspicion he wanted to overthrow the state, a friend said.

Cao was even described as a 'fugitive' in a headline in the Southern People Weekly.

But after negotiations and media coverage by publications in other provinces, the authorities reduced their 'special attention'.

Cao revealed in a post through Zhu's Weibo account that he had been co-operating with the authorities in the investigation since June 18.

He told The Great Wall Monthly he had not received any phone calls from officials trying to prevent him from running for mayor.

A friend even hinted that Cao thought some government officials secretly supported his moves.

Cao's original name was Cao Hongqi. After earning a PhD in law, he tried a few jobs including as a lawyer and reporter, before stumbling into real estate in 1998 and ending up as general manager of Fengyasong Real Estate Company.

He served nearly three years in jail for 'political reasons' when he was 21, according to reports in Changcheng News Digest.

Zhu characterised Cao as 'persistent, general, direct and wise'. He said the businessman had always been enthusiastic about politics.

He yearned for the country to develop in a healthy way with a real constitution, Zhu said.

Cao described himself as 'wealthier than cultured people, more cultured than the wealthy and more idealistic than the cultured', said Zhu.

On running for mayor of the largest city of Henan province, Cao was quoted as saying by Southern People Weekly: 'I just want to give it a try and see if I am elected or not.

'If possible, I will persist until the end. My original thought was to throw a stone and see how big the ripples would be.'

Cao wrote in a post that he was tired of making money and wanted to spend 100 million yuan on a chance to serve the people.

Reform was moving forward too slowly, he argued. '[Political] reform is out of tune with [economic] development. It's a naive and even romantic idea - and actually I am that kind of a person.'

The mainland has seen nearly 100 people declaring their candidacies for grassroots people's congresses on Weibo and their boldness is being hailed by some analysts as an indication of rising civil rights awareness and even as fuel for the democratic process on the mainland.

Cao must gain the support of at least 30 delegates of the National People's Congress in Zhengzhou to become a mayoral candidate.

Delegates then cast their votes for the mayor during the NPC sessions in Henan's capital.

He knows victory is more or less an impossible mission, but said he would count it a success if he could just become a candidate.

'That would be an epoch-making moment. If a Zhengzhou mayor was voted in by citizens, this would bring real hope and confidence to Henan and even China,' he wrote in a blog entry.

His candidacy team includes legal experts, sociologists and economists, but he refuses to reveal more details.

The businessman is extremely confident about his abilities to manage a city.

'It's a piece of cake,' he told Southern People Weekly. 'I am much more capable than the mayor in terms of culture and popularity.'

He said he wanted to win support by following the wishes of ordinary people on improving their welfare.

'If 100 million yuan is not enough, I can take one billion yuan,' he told the newspaper. 'I can also provide more welfare to people and donate to schools for migrant children.'

Cao is aware that there are those who would not wish him success.

In a Weibo post sent by Zhu, he says: 'There will be bloody sacrifice even in a harmonious society. Wisdom is also needed when pushing any reforms in China.

'If I lose my life before success, I will tell my young daughter, 'Burn a vote in front of my tomb and plant a pagoda tree beside.'

'I will be in full blossom, and will turn my gaze to my motherland.'