Tea Leaf Nation

Leaning In — to Chinese Corruption

Leaning In — to Chinese Corruption

It’s no secret that graft is an essential part of climbing the Chinese Communist Party ranks. Now, according to Chinese state media, ambitious female cadres are increasingly being caught taking bribes and trading favors. On June 16, the state-controlled (but liberal) Beijing News named and shamed 12 female officials targeted by anti-corruption investigators in the first half of 2014. The report said most offenders were city officials in key posts. Four have already been charged; eight remain under investigation, although in the Chinese justice system the ultimate conviction rate of defendants is exceedingly high.

The Beijing News report didn’t give detailed accounts of the alleged crimes. Instead, it was about a trend: female officials abusing their power. It cited government figures showing a 33 percent increase in the number of corruption cases involving female officials in the first 11 months of 2013, as compared to 2009. The dozen women listed as more recent offenders ranged from ages 41 to 60, and many had either taken bribes or traded sex for power. Headshots of the women that appeared to have been downloaded from official government websites were widely shared on Chinese social media site Weibo, with many users dubious about the sexual charisma of the mature, buttoned-up-looking offenders. "Their bosses must have pretty strange taste," wrote one commenter.

The photos were a stark contrast to the sultry female figure usually seen at the center of many Chinese corruption dramas: the mistress. The famous femme fatale Li Wei, busted on tax charges in 2006, reportedly raked in millions of dollars in stock, gifts, and real estate proceeds from deals facilitated by her well-connected paramours, including a former governor of the southern province of Yunnan and the chairman of oil giant Sinopec. Sometimes, usually when scorned, mistresses have also become whistleblowers, posting intimate photos and financial secrets online — revelations that have led to probes. Top Chinese economic official Liu Tienan was sacked in May 2013 and expelled from the party after his mistress told an investigative journalist that Liu had embezzled $200 million and threatened to kill her. In June 2013, a district official in the southern megacity of Chongqing was sentenced to 13 years in jail for bribery. The investigation was triggered when a tape showing the man, Lei Zhengfu, having sex with an 18-year-old woman went viral online.

By contrast, the report on dirty female cadres felt novel, not because women officials are ordinarily so virtuous but because ranking female officials are so few. Political participation by Chinese women remains low, and has been for decades, despite repeated pledges by the party to bring more women into the political process through affirmative action.

But looks can be deceiving. Though they represent a minority in government, female officials have still been linked to a number of high-profile corruption cases. In November 2011, China executed Luo Yaping, known as Liaoning province’s "land granny," for making off with more than $23 million in bribes and illicit wealth. Luo was a relatively low-level land development official in the rust belt city of Fushun but when she was detained she had more than $8,000 in cash in her purse and multiple bank cards, including one linked to an account with more than $3 million in it. In June 2005, a 49-year-old female police chief in Shenzhen was sentenced to 15 years in jail for taking bribes. State media said the cop, An Huijun, also doled out promotions in exchange for sexual favors from young officers.

The latest report underscores how in the Chinese system, corruption appeals to male and female alike. A June 16 China Daily article quoted Peking University researcher Li Chengyan as saying Chinese graft was gender blind. "Corruption has nothing to do with age and gender," Li said. Indeed, while some argue that getting more women into power results in cleaner government and less corruption, research suggests that women are actually just as likely as men to take bribes in an authoritarian system like China’s. A 2013 study by a pair of scholars at Rice University and the National Democratic Institute found that female officials avoid risk, so were less likely to be corrupt in democracies but more likely to be corrupt in authoritarian systems where graft was pervasive. The scholars wrote, "Where corruption is stigmatized, women will be less tolerant of corruption and less likely to engage in it compared to men." On the other hand, if corruption is an ordinary part of governance, "then there will be no corruption gender gap."

The Beijing News article leaves the jump in female corruption cases unexplained. After all, there has been no corresponding spike in new female government recruits during that span. The increase is most likely linked to an anti-graft campaign launched by Xi Jinping shortly after he took over as China’s top party official in November 2012. The government says that in 2013, 182,000 officials were punished for corruption violations, an increase of 20,000 dirty officials from 2012. It would seem men and women alike are being caught up in the graft crackdown — a rare instance of gender parity in Chinese governance.