Tea Leaf Nation

Just How Corrupt Are These People?

Deciphering the Chinese Communist Party's code for official misconduct.

Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING — If the prominence of a social phenomenon can be gauged in part by the variety of terms used to describe it — like the (apocryphal) notion that Eskimos employ an unusual plentitude of words for snow — then Chinese officials’ engagement in illicit sexual relations is pervasive indeed. Over the years, China’s ruling Communist Party has drawn on a number of phrases to describe the libidinous habits of its wayward officials, including daode baihuai, or "moral corruption," yanzhong daode baihuai, or "serious moral corruption," shenghuo fuhua, or "degenerate lifestyle," and shenghuo milan, or "dissipated lifestyle." Since party disciplinary actions against senior cadres often have far-reaching political consequences or signal internal power struggles, enterprising outsider observers have tried to crack this code-speak.

While there is a common understanding among most Chinese that all of these accusations allude to what the party sees as "improper sexual relationships," any distinction beyond that blurs. Rarely if ever are details of such illicit relationships formally released or confirmed, leaving it to the rumor mills to fill in the blank on what an official might have done to deserve being called "morally corrupt" as opposed to, say, "degenerate."

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek analysis published by the liberal state-owned newspaper Beijing News on April 16, which has been republished by multiple Chinese media outlets since, attempts to decipher the disciplinary commission’s code, focusing specifically on parsing the meaning of the four charges listed above. If all of them seemed to cover the same misconduct of extramarital sex, asked the newspaper, "What truly is the difference?"

Drawing from examples of fallen officials, the Beijing News showed there has been little rhyme or reason to the way in which such charges are assigned. The accusation of “moral corruption,” the Beijing News found, seems reserved for those adulterers with particularly wandering gazes. Looking at news reports and internal memos, the newspaper deduced that the lowest common denominator linking officials facing this charge was the keeping of at least three mistresses. Included in this category are Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, Liu Tienan, a former senior economic policymaker, Ni Fake, former provincial deputy governor ofcentral Anhui province, and most recently, Guo Yongxiang, the former deputy governor of western Sichuan province who was charged in April 2014.

Unsurprisingly, "serious moral corruption" is a bit more severe. To be charged with this, concluded the Beijing News, an official generally would not only have kept multiple mistresses, but his actions would also have brought about harmful effects, possibly because the affairs were carried out in the open. This at least appears to have been the case with former Wenzhou vice mayor Ye Jiren, sentenced by the Intermediate People’s Court of Taizhou City to three years in prison for abuse of power in a land deal as well as "serious moral corruption leading to harmful effects." (Specifics of what such "harmful effects" may have been were not released.)

In any case, the Beijing News discovered, the three-plus mistresses rule is not a bright-line one. The cases of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Politburo member, and his onetime ally, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, are both notable exceptions; the two were separately accused of "having or maintaining improper relationships with several women." Prior to his fall, Bo in particular had enjoyed a formidable reputation as a philanderer. One Chinese journalist once told U.S.-based NPR that it’d be an "extremely conservative guess to say he had 100 mistresses." Yet neither Bo nor Wang were ever formally charged with "moral corruption."

Then there is the "degenerate lifestyle." This charge contemplates "fewer women with whom the officials have ‘improper relations,’" read the report. Instead, the officials "tend to have one or two ‘fixed’ mistresses, though the mistresses may also partake in corrupt behavior." In past crackdowns on corruption before the Xi era, authorities slapped officials with this accusation far more frequently, often in cases in which both an official and his mistress were found to have taken bribes. More recently, however, "degenerate lifestyle" has been levied in conjunction with "moral corruption" to convey essentially the same concept: both an official and his mistress on the take.

One bureaucrat who recently faced shuangkai (simultaneous expulsion from the party and stripping of official titles) was Wang Guoyan, former party secretary of Nanchang Hangkong University, an aviation university in southeastern Jiangxi province. An investigator involved in the case told Beijing News that Wang was found guilty of spending large amounts of illicitly acquired lucre on his paramours, including facilitating a $160,000 bribe to invest in the hotel project of one of his more entrepreneurial mistresses. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking bribes of almost $1 million for, among other offenses, "moral corruption, degenerate lifestyle."

Then there are those officials whose lifestyles are "dissipated" rather than "degenerate." Though it seems to have mostly fallen out of use, the charge of leading a "dissipated lifestyle" likely involves use of luxury goods in addition to sexual misconduct. In December2011, Yang Guangliang, the deputy former mayor of Maoming city in southern Guangdong province, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for leading a "dissipated lifestyle" and taking millions in bribes over several years and using an alternate identity to sport expensive watches and large rings.

The lines between these charges waver so frequently and wantonly that Beijing News ultimately fails to reach any unifying theory about what behavior triggers which charge. But that may be the unstated point: No evident logic drives the disciplinary commission’s assignments. For the party, charging officials with an ever-shifting array of moral delinquencies has the added benefit of personalizing illicit behavior, dodging mention of any system issues that may lie beneath. Even when official corruption reaches the Chinese public, and justice is meted (or at least sought), the public remains somewhere in the dark.

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