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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.

High-speed Railway Collapse in Hubei – A tragedy averted by luck

Around 1 p.m. this afternoon People’s Daily reported that a 300 meter section of high-speed railway collapsed in Hubei province, possibly because of heavy rains. As far as I can tell from the media reports, no one was injured or killed (although it does not say so explicitly).

The strange part about this report though, is that the collapse happened Friday afternoon. Why was there a delay? Odds are that this was caused by the ongoing meetings in Beijing that typically prefer only positive news during their sessions. The same day as the collapse, officials assured the public that China would be pushing forward with it’s planned high-speed rails despite “some mistakes.”

Even though there was no loss of life in this collapse, tragedy seems to have been averted through luck rather than through inspections or maintenance. In fact, early last week reports came out about alleged use of sub-standard materials in the construction of this very line.

A Time Weekly report said Thursday that CGGC’s earth supplier Ni Hongjun reported to the authorities in 2010 that CGGC employees replaced at least 90,000 cubic meters of spall with earth for personal benefit, causing serious safety risks for high-speed trains and passengers.

The Wuhan-Yichang high-speed railway runs in Central China’s Hubei Province, an area prone to flooding caused by the Yangtze River and its tributaries. Replacing spall with earth for the project amounts to building a house on the foundation of cake, the source said. –People’s Daily March 5th

These reports were denied, and the official inspection report was cited as evidence of its safety.

This tells us that glaring safety problems were missed by inspectors who were looking specifically for those problems, and most shockingly, that questions were raised two years ago and nothing was done. Given the fall out over the high-speed train crash outside Wenzhou last year which killed 40 passengers and left 172 injured, it is hard to believe that inspectors are still failing to take their work seriously.

While I have no background in rail construction, the contractor reported 90,000 cubic meters of spall being replaced with earth, but only 300 meters of rail collapsed. Assuming that it takes less than 300 cubic meters of spall per meter of rail, it would seem that a large stretch of rail could still be at risk of collapsing. The Railway Ministry cannot honestly tell us how much more of this line was built with the same corner cutting methods and it could be several kilometers (assuming even 20 cubic meters of spall/meter of track would mean 4.5 km of dangerous rail).

Had heavy rains not come this weekend, things could have been much worse. The line was scheduled to open in May, and it’s quite possible that a fully loaded passenger train, traveling at nearly 300 km/h could have rocketed off the tracks in a crash. I worry that this now “minor” accident will obscure what a monumental failure this is on behalf of China Railway’s supposedly improved safety standards and the government’s willingness to put its own people in harm’s way for the sake of “progress”.

Photos from Weibo:

click to enlarge

Update: The railway company is denying that this was a collapse, and that it is instead “routine improvements.” A reporter from Beijing News urged a gov’t inspection team should be sent to investigate if it is a collapse. The fact that it is unclear whether or not this was an accident is all the more reason to be concerned, and highlights the lack of organization and communication from the Railway Ministry.