An official account of corrupt officials – How People’s Daily reports on graft in China

A few days ago, it was announced that Liu Zhijun, former head of the Railway Ministry was stripped of his party title as a result of misconduct. In the Western press it was said that his graft involved hundreds of millions of RMB (over 800 million), and yet People’s Daily (PD) has never hinted at an amount. With this small spark, I decided to do a case study of PD’s reports on corruption in China.

The Party’s mouth piece is left in a precarious situation, a lack of reporting on corruption would give the people the impression that nothing is being done to confront the very visible problem. Reporting too much though gives the impression that every gov’t official is corrupt, and the Party is failing in their efforts to control it. This tight rope act must be carefully managed so as to maintain precisely the right balance in appearance of action and control.

In order to get a sample of the stories published by People’s Daily, I used Google Site search with the phrase “corrupt” (which also caught corruption and ant-corruption), and then limited the results to 1/1/2011-12/31/2011 (results). This returned a total of 374 results, of these roughly 60% were false positives caused by links to other articles. The remainder fell into three general categories; the largest focused on the Party’s anti-corruption efforts, the second largest focused on denouncing corruption and opinion pieces encouraging the gov’t to take action, and the smallest subset consisted of just 14 articles related to specific cases of corrupt officials being prosecuted.

These cases proved particularly interesting, since they give the clearest picture of corrupt officials and their crimes (see table at bottom). The smallest amount published was 10,000rmb, which was used for a banquet for the Luwan District Red Cross in Shanghai, while this received a great deal of attention on Weibo and was part of a very painful public image crisis for the Red Cross (which had also been hit by the Guo Meimei scandal), it was an insignificant amount compared to the other instances of corruption. The average amount accumulated by individual corrupt officials tried in 2011 was over 18,000,000RMB (based off only what has been reported in PD, which excludes the Liu Zhijun case), with the most corrupt being Xu Zhongheng, former mayor of Shenzhen, who was accused of taking over 33,000,000 RMB. The largest instance of corruption reported, was related to the trial of the managers of the Wenzhou Vegetable Basket group, which is a State Owned Enterprise; the CEO and 15 others took over 426 million RMB from the company during a restructuring process. People’s Daily though prefers to focus on individuals even when it clearly involves a group of corrupt officials.

I think for a casual reader the steady stream of information about anti-corruption efforts and limited reporting on individual trials may give the impression that corruption is being effectively controlled. Yet, when one looks at all of the reporting together, it seems woefully inadequate. For example, the paper mentions an effort to register the financial assets of 1.67 million officials, yet only 51% reported their property ownership, 36% registered their investments, and 48% reported the employment status of their relatives (who as we learned from the Bo Xilai scandal can also receive massive perks from their connections). Unsurprisingly the paper is complicit in glossing over these disparities; in the previous year roughly 146,000 corruption cases were investigated, yet only 14 were reported in the PD. These efforts seem at best to be a weak attempt at transparency.

The lowest amount reportedly taken by an individual official was 1.2 million RMB, which makes me wonder what the threshold is for punishment. Unfortunately we will never know how much the 146,000 officials were caught with, but the total must be massive considering that according to the cases reported in People’s Daily just 29 officials pilfered 647.18 million RMB.

Furthermore, the People’s Daily quickly backed away from the sensational report released last year from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that 16-18,000 officials had fled overseas with up to 800 billion RMB over the past 20 years. This figure was later replaced with the somewhat less damning claim of 4,000 officials with 50 billion USD over 30 years (roughly 40% of the original figure). The fact that there is a phrase to describe officials getting ready to flea, naked officials, indicates the scale of the problem.

Despite being the mouth piece of the Party, People’s Daily did publish a few bold editorials related to corruption. “Tofu Projects in China,” focused on various vanity projects throughout the country that had been poorly constructed and wasted public funds, and “The Recipe of China’s Food Safety Crisis” squarely blames corrupt inspectors for the country’s failure to protect its citizens from harmful ingredients. The paper also reported that corruption was rife in the construction industry, and that bribes can make up to 5-10% of the cost of a single project (China invested over 4 trillion RMB to bolster the economy after the 2008 downturn, do the math).

Overall, it seems that the tight rope act is now in danger of taking a disastrous fall as Weibo and other platforms become the more popular sources of information, largely because of inept reporting by PD and other “official” papers. Sadly, state media fails miserably at providing the people anything more than a glimpse of the scope and scale of the corruption. There are a few bright spots though, one being that corruption efforts do seem to actually be expanding to formerly off limits levels of gov’t, and secondly, that local elections seem to be reducing corruption at the local level, which has a large impact for China’s farmers.

8 responses to “An official account of corrupt officials – How People’s Daily reports on graft in China”

  1. It’s not entirely clear which of the People’s Daily’s two site you’ve taken this data from. The links seem to suggest this study was conducted on the English-language People’s Daily site. Assuming that the English language site is not a blow-by-blow translation of the content of the Chinese site, I’d suggest the ‘tight rope act’ you describe is not quite as you imagine it. The reaction of ‘the people’ (of China) is clearly not what’s at stake as only a (relative) handful of mainland Chinese are actually reading this particular version of the newspaper. I’m curious as to the news flows between the English-language and Chinese-language sites. Do you have any knowledge or info on this?

    • Tom says:

      From my experience, the English version and the Chinese version do line up fairly closely, as most of the content in the English version is meant more towards Party figures and Chinese citizens (no foreigner cares about leader X urging gov’t officials to serve the people). Also the English version would tend to have slightly fewer articles than the Chinese version, but again, they do line up fairly closely. Given this, the analysis is still useful and the statistics serve as a baseline for conversations about corruption. Regardless of the language it was written in, we can say that the Party acknowledges that billions of RMB are being lost in the system.

  2. ToTheLightHouse says:

    As you know,Tom,those Chinese institutions or bureaus of government prefixed with “People’s” such as 人民日报,人民法院,人民检察院 and so on are not relevant so much to chinese people as to the Party.The figures are either hallucinated by hacks or results of ulterior caucuses.As far as I know,it’s safe to say that even a minor functionary could embezzle or receive a bribe up to tens of millions RMB and own several estates illegally.As for the local elections,the only one which has realized the universal suffrage is election of a village head.But ridiculously villagers could mostly be suborned by a bottle of soybean oil or milk.

  3. Another well written post Tom. What a shame the People’s Party of China is to its populace. I live in Shenzhen and followed the ex-mayor’s rise and fall to prison this year. There are so many brand new high-rise apartments in Shenzhen that were supposed to be sold as low-income housing but Mr. Xu changed his mind and wanted them to be sold to government workers only. Now that the new mayor is in office and trying to legally reverse the decision Mr. Xu made before he got sacked, the dozens of new apartment buildings sit empty and have for nearly 3 years while 10,000s of low income earners look for affordable housing. I’m sure this sort of occurance is widespread all over China as so many officials made easy money taking bribes from land developers and building contractors for their own benefit without a care for anyone else.

    Organized international crime has nothing over the corrupt government system in China. It is a seriously infested disease that will continue to fester for decades and affect millions of Chinese citizens. Hopefully many people will read your post and become more aware of this problem in China.

  4. H. Lincoln says:

    Good work Tom, thanks for having the patience to sift through all those articles to bring us this info. Most would just look at three articles then make a conclusion

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  6. […] An official account of corrupt officials – How People’s Daily reports on graft in China ( […]

  7. […] book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” […]

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