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Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign

Death penalty for ‘godfather’ of Chinese coal mining town over US$160 million in bribes

Zhang Zhongsheng showed ‘extreme greed’ and was handed most severe punishment for ‘big losses he caused to the nation and the people’, court rules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 4:22pm

A former vice-mayor of a poverty-stricken city in the coal-rich province of Shanxi was on Wednesday sentenced to death, without reprieve, for accepting over one billion yuan in bribes (US$160 million).

The sentencing of Zhang Zhongsheng – known for his splendid hilltop mansions and dubbed the “godfather” because of his influence and power in the city of Luliang – was an unusually harsh punishment for economic crimes, even since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012 and started an unprecedented crackdown on corruption.

Zhang can still appeal the sentence handed down by the Intermediate People’s Court of Linfen, and the death penalty must be approved by the supreme court in Beijing. 

In sentencing, the court said Zhang had shown “extreme” greed in taking bribes, according to Xinhua. 

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Shanxi, in the north, was targeted by Xi’s anti-graft campaign in 2013, described as one of the country’s “disaster zones” that was suffering from a “landslide of corruption” among local officials, leading to a flurry of arrests of its political and business elite.

Zhang, 65, a short, bullish man, worked in local government for about 40 years before he came under investigation by the party’s graft-busters in 2014. 

The court found Zhang accepted more than 1.04 billion yuan in bribes from 1997 to 2013, and in return he eased the way for entrepreneurs in the city, approving and granting licences for coal mine mergers and other projects, Xinhua reported.

Zhang was also unable to explain the source of over 130 million yuan of personal assets, according to the ruling. 

The court said the amounts involved were “extremely large”, particularly in two cases. 

“Two out of the 18 bribery cases concerned over 200 million yuan, and he asked for bribes of 88.68 million yuan,” the court said.

Zhang had not returned over 300 million yuan of these bribes, the court said.

It described Zhang as “contemptuous of rules and laws” and “extremely greedy”, saying he did not restrain himself even amid the nationwide anti-graft drive, concluding that he deserved the most severe punishment for “the big losses he caused to the nation and the people”.

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Nestled in the mountains of the dusty Loess Plateau, Luliang is best known for having served as a base for the Red Army during the second world war. Nearly 70 years since the Communist Party took power in China, Luliang still lags behind the rest of the country, with one-fifth of its population of 3.7 million living in poverty. Yet its rich deposits of coal have fuelled frenetic investment over the past decade, turning some mine owners into millionaires.

According to a three-month investigation into corruption in Luliang in 2014 by financial magazine Caixin, some of the area’s businessmen claim to have spent US$150,000 a year bribing officials who, like Zhang, controlled the mines and could close them down if they were deemed unsafe. 

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“This is a typical case showing how officials, even the low-ranking ones, can easily amass a huge amount of wealth by wielding their influence to allocate resources,” said Hu Xingdou, an independent political economist.

“This is a heavy price to pay for using your administrative power to manipulate the system,” he said.