Corruption in China

Why China’s anti-graft watchdog is a stepping stone to higher office

People close to Wang Qishan rise to key positions in provinces and cabinet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 11:11pm

One Communist Party office in China makes more headlines domestically and internationally than any other, and that’s the party’s anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

In the past five years, its crackdown on corruption and campaign against conspicuous consumption have swept aside political factions at the national and local levels and restored party doctrines harking back to the days of Mao Zedong. Party members have not only been punished for receiving bribes, but also for using their legitimate income to stage extravagant wedding parties for their children.

But ensuring political loyalty is the commission’s primary task in party general secretary Xi Jinping’s war against factional politics, and Xi’s key ally in that war is Wang Qishan, the CCDI’s chief since 2012.

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Wang has appeared in public far less often than predecessor He Guoqiang, but understands the value of good publicity. The commission’s propaganda office was founded on his watch three years ago and has had plenty to brag about, with Wang netting roughly twice as many corrupt officials as He did in his second five-year term.

Riding on Wang’s coattails, some former associates have been promoted to important offices spearheading Xi’s campaign, which is designed to shore up the party’s legitimacy, and some subordinates at the CCDI have gone on to provincial governorships, something rarely seen before.

Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan said Wang was now China’s second-most-powerful man after Xi, who is also the country’s president.

“Many officials now fear Wang more than Xi,” he said. “And it’s a long tradition for whoever is in power to trust and promote people they are familiar with.”

Many senior CCDI officials also worked for Wang when he was mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2007.

Cui Peng, Wang’s deputy chief of staff in Beijing’s municipal government, was also his deputy chief of staff at the CCDI from 2014 before becoming one of four vice-ministers of supervision in January. The ministry is the lower-profile state organ that mirrors the CCDI’s functions and shares its offices. It is expected to play a bigger role in a super graft-fighting body planned by Beijing.

Yang Xiaochao, Beijing city’s top auditor under Wang, has been Wang’s top aide at the anti-graft watchdog for two years.

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Xiao Pei, Beijing’s deputy propaganda chief under Wang, was the first director of the CCDI’s propaganda office following its establishment in 2014. He became a vice-minister of supervision in July 2015.

His successor as propaganda office director, Chen Xiaojiang, followed in his footsteps last month when he also became a vice-minister of supervision.

Via its website and smartphone applications, the office has staged online opinion polls about corruption and made whistle-blowing as easy as thumb typing, at least technically, in a first for the communist regime.

The CCDI’s propaganda had significantly improved its image and that of the party as a whole, said Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of Peking University’s Clean Government Centre.

“The public have grown more attentive to the CCDI, because it was not as secretive to the people and government officials any more,” Zhuang said. “The CCDI has never been so open and transparent.”

That transparency has seen the CCDI reveal details in the past three years of the interrogation rooms used in the secretive and controversial internal party probes known as shuanggui. It has also released a series of documentaries exposing details of the lifestyles of corrupt officials. Many such posts have gone viral online.

While the primary goal of Xi’s corruption crackdown is eliminating secondary allegiances among officials and improving the effectiveness of governance, in many of his public speeches he has also stressed its importance in improving the party’s public approval ratings.

“It [the propaganda office] is beefing up the legitimacy of the party, and rebuilding the image of the CCDI,” Zhuang said.

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But Wang has done more than stage a series of fireworks shows. He also established the CCDI’s own organisation department three years ago, giving it more power over cadres’ appointments. Provincial anti-corruption chiefs used to be selected by the party’s central Organisation Department but are now chosen by the CCDI.

The change has allowed many of Wang’s former associates to build up their provincial governance portfolios. And that has paved the way for their promotion to regional chiefdom, where they join an important talent pool from which more senior appointments are drawn.

Lin Duo, who was party chief of Beijing’s Xicheng district when Wang was the capital’s mayor, was appointed head of Liaoning’s provincial anti-graft watchdog in 2014. He moved to Gansu a year and a half later as acting governor and became the province’s party chief in April this year.

Huang Xiaowei, a former minister of supervision who was also worked for Wang at the CCDI, was sent to Shanxi to head that province’s anti-corruption watchdog in 2014 after a massive corruption case ensnared around half the members of its party standing committee. He was named Shanxi’s deputy party chief last year.

Meanwhile, in another break from tradition, graft-busters are also filling important positions in the State Council, China’s cabinet.

Former CCDI deputy director Chen Wenqing was appointed the country’s spy chief in 2015 and another former CCDI deputy director, Huang Shuxian, has been minister of civil affairs since November, when the anti-graft agency toppled his predecessor. Wang Lingjun, a former vice-minster of supervision who worked with Chen and Huang, was appointed deputy chief of China’s customs agency last month.

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“In the past, it was rare to see discipline inspection cadres going out to other fields , it was quite an enclosed system,” Zhuang said. “Beijing is now using former anti-corruption people to reshape governance at all levels, and Wang is obviously promoting people he’s familiar with at the same time.”

Political commentator Zhang Lifan said that while it was obvious the CCDI’s power had grown, it was still hard to separate Wang’s influence from that of Xi.

“It’s still hard to say Wang has formed his own faction; Xi has also been putting his protégés in the CCDI,” Zhang said. “And we shouldn’t forget that in Chinese politics there is a perpetual conflict between the most powerful man and the second-most-powerful one.”