Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Most Rotten: A Rogues’ Gallery

One of 2014's naughtiest cadres amassed so much cash, it broke police counting machines.

Rogues Gallery PROPERTY OF FOREIGN POLICY GROUP

In story after story about China’s corrupt cadres, state media describe loot reminiscent of Aladdin’s cave. The reporting is often luridly detailed, part of a propaganda push underscoring the successes of the sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping shortly after he ascended to power in November 2012. There was the coal sector bureaucrat busted in May 2014 who hoarded a record-breaking $33 million in cash at home, and the low-level water supply official detained in February 2014 who hid 81 pounds of gold and deeds to 68 properties. In the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), its armed services, there was the general who was charged in March 2014 after being caught with 20 crates of fancy liquor, a gold boat, and a gold Chairman Mao statue. The staggering volume of wealth and luxe objects reported in many Chinese graft cases suggests a ruling elite not only riddled with corruption, but one also troubled by a collective hoarding disorder. State-run China Business News reported that when Ma Junfei, a railway official in Inner Mongolia’s capital of Hohhot in northern China, was detained for graft in December 2013, he told authorities that his “biggest headache” had been trying to figure out where to hide all the cash he received.

The more recent roster of fallen cadres has included some very high-level officials and graft on a scale so large that there was no hiding it, however the perpetrators might have tried. Here is a list of some of the most egregious recent offenders:

  • Xu Caihou, a retired high-ranking PLA general (Confessed: October 2014). His stash of calligraphy, gold, jade, and a one-ton pile of cash of U.S. dollars, renminbi, and euros was hauled away by at least 10 trucks. State media said in October 2014 that Xu had confessed to bribery, although he has yet to stand trial.
  • Gu Junshan, PLA general and protégé of Xu (Charged: March 2014). Investigators needed four trucks to cart off cash, 20 crates of expensive liquor, a gold boat, and a gold statue of Mao Zedong.
  • Ni Fake, former vice governor of east China’s Anhui province (Tried: December 2014). Fully 80 percent of the $2 million Ni took in bribes came in the form of jade pieces, which the enthusiast reportedly enjoyed waxing regularly. The rest consisted of artwork and cash.
  • Ma Chaoqun, water supply official in the resort town of Beidaihe, close to the capital of Beijing (Detained: February 2014). Ma was not a high-level official, but his haul showed him to have made industrious use of his position. He was found with $19.3 million in cash, 81 pounds of gold, and 68 houses spread across many Chinese cities, including Beijing. The cash alone was estimated to weigh 1.5 tons and took up 42 cubic feet of space.
  • Wei Pengyuan, head of the coal department at the National Energy Administration (Investigated: May 2014). Authorities seized the equivalent of $33 million in cash at Wei’s home in May 2014 and said it was the biggest cash haul to date. Four out of the 16 counting machines brought in to count the money broke.

Unseemly mountains of loot may be an unavoidable occupational hazard for crooked officials in China; Andrew Wedeman, a political science professor and expert on Chinese corruption at Georgia State University, told Foreign Policy that practical reasons lie behind the massive stashes. First, corruption requires a cash economy to avoid leaving paper trails. But the largest Chinese bill is a 100 renminbi, or yuan, note, worth only about $16, so “bribes in the hundreds of thousands of yuan can add up to a pretty big pile.” Bribes also sometimes come as gift cards, jewelry, gold, artwork, or luxury watches. “Senior officials can easily end up with large stockpiles of cash and other valuables,” Wedeman said, adding that the problem is “what to do with the stockpiles.” Bank deposits are likely to draw scrutiny, while strict capital controls make it hard to move money out of China.

Many simply resort to salting away their stash in or around their homes, or renting additional apartments or storage units. The state-run Beijing News ran an amusing graphic in January 2014 showing the many creative places in the average household that corrupt officials had placed booty over the years, including secret closets, the bottoms of garbage cans, and chimneys. One low-level official in coastal Shandong tucked his ill-gotten gains inside tea canisters in his garden. The man, a county-level official, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for embezzlement and bribe taking in November 2002, a penalty usually commuted to life in prison. In an editorial for the New York Times in May 2014, well-known writer Yu Hua described how Xu Qiyao, an official in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, wrapped part of his $3.2 million booty in plastic and hid it in “a hollow tree trunk, beneath an ash heap, in a rice field, and inside a latrine.”

With so much cash filling the homes of top officials, some commentators have wondered aloud if the practice has an impact on China’s monetary system. Writer Yu has cheekily argued that the stashes could be keeping monetary surpluses in check and warding off price inflation. Seized cash should be easy enough to inject back into the system, but Chinese officials have an ingenious way of dealing with seized goods: They auction them online on the Taobao website. A dedicated landing page shows all the latest hauls. Cars and apartments dominate, but one can also find crates of liquor.

The auction site recoups some of the money lost to graft, but with the salutary effect of shaming guilty officials. The site is organized geographically, making it easy to see what goods have been seized in specific provinces and cities. This feature, along with colorful descriptions in state media, appear part of a strategy to change public perceptions about graft, which many citizens currently consider a fact of life. Wedeman told FP that the exposure is a way “of showing that corrupt officials are irrationally greedy and accept bribes even though they cannot possibly use the money and valuables they are given.”

There may be another type of gamesmanship behind the scenes. When Wei Qiang was toppled from his perch as police chief of the southern metropolis of Chongqing in September 2009, journalists were invited to watch as police dredged $3.2 million in cash from a fish pond where Wei had allegedly hidden it. News reports from the time said he had wrapped the money so meticulously in plastic that “not even a drop of water” had dampened the bills. Wei was executed in July 2010; years later, in January 2013, Hong Kong’s English-language daily South China Morning Post reported the recovery may have been staged by Wen’s rival Wang Lijun, then head of public security in Chongqing. (In September 2012, Wang was sentenced to 15 years in jail for abuse of power, bribe-taking, defection, and “bending the law for selfish ends.”) The Post quoted a Chongqing businessman saying that Wen had nothing to do with the money in the fish pond. “The money was actually borrowed from a local business just a day before Wang invited the media to see the so-called evidence.”

Clockwise from top left: Ma Junfei, Xu Caihou, Gu Junshan, Ni Fake, Ma Chaoqun, Wei Pengyuan. Images fair use. Compilation is property FP Group; do not reproduce without permission. 

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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