Top Chinese official jailed for life as Xi's purge shows its staying power

Liu Tienan was sentenced Wednesday for bribery. President Xi Jinping is going after low-level functionaries as well, with some 84,000 officials disciplined in the first half of 2014.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP/File
Liu Tienan, then the vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, speaks during a press conference in Shanghai, China, April 29, 2009.

Some critics dismiss President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign as simply a more dramatic version of a traditional political purge. But today's jailing of yet another former top official is a reminder that the effort has dug too deep – and been going too long – to be scorned as mere political theater. 

The latest figure to fall is Liu Tienan, who was jailed for life on Wednesday for receiving some $6 million in bribes. Mr. Liu was sacked in August 2013 as deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission after a disgruntled mistress blew the whistle on him, and was the most senior official to be purged at the time.

Since then, however, he has been outshone by other falling stars, most notably Zhou Yongkang, a former secret police chief whose writ ran throughout the land. Zhou’s formal arrest on charges of bribery, leaking state secrets, and adultery was announced at midnight last Friday.

Until two years ago, the much feared Mr. Zhou was a member of the nine-man Standing Committee of the Communist party’s Politburo, at the pinnacle of power in China. He is the most senior Communist leader to face trial since the Gang of Four, led by Mao Zedong’s widow, were jailed in 1981.

Zhou was one of President Xi’s most powerful political enemies; his fate has been shared by dozens of family members and former associates. Clearly, there is a political dimension to the campaign: None of Xi’s allies have so far fallen foul of Communist party discipline investigators, nor have any of the so-called “red princelings,” the sons and daughters of veteran party heroes like Xi himself.

Xi had pledged to go after “both tigers and flies” in his crackdown, jolting both top officials and minor functionaries. Alongside Zhou, 57 other ministerial or provincial leadership level officials have been fired or otherwise disciplined in the past two years. In the past, there were rarely more than 10 such cases a year.

But lower down the scale, the flies are being firmly swatted. In the past week, victims of the crackdown included bureaucrats such as Xie Chao, secretary of a district Communist party cell in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, and Hong Jiaxiang, head of public relations for the Ningbo city party headquarters, for example.

The first half of this year saw 84,000 officials disciplined for corruption, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist party agency that is running the anticorruption campaign. That was up 30 percent on 2013 figures, the commission said.

Even relatively insignificant civil servants have been caught with astonishing amounts of money. The general manager of a state-owned provincial water board was found to have hoarded more than $16 million, along with 81 lbs. of gold bullion, in his apartment. Not to mention 68 other properties, according to a report by China's official news agency.

The deputy manager of the Beijing Zoo, tried earlier this year for corruption, did not convince the court with his claims that he had amassed $3.5 million worth of cash, art works, and bullion by moonlighting as a cabdriver.

That kind of explanation would likely also be insufficient in the case of Gen. Gu Junshan, formerly one of the Peoples Liberation Army’s most senior officers. A report this week in a magazine known to be close to the authorities cited investigators saying he had been involved in a five billion dollar scheme to sell military promotions and that he had skimmed 100 million dollars for himself.

Gen. Gu has not been seen in public since 2012. No date has yet been set for his trial. 

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