China promotes controversial antitrust official Xu Kunlin

Mr Xu Kunlin visits a bank in Suzhou, Jiangsu province on Dec 7, 2012. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Xu Kunlin visits a bank in Suzhou, Jiangsu province on Dec 7, 2012. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China has promoted a controversial antitrust official to one of its top economic planning agency's most powerful departments in the wake of a corruption scandal that led to the investigation of two high-level officials, state media said on Friday.

Xu Kunlin, the director-general of the National Development and Reform Commission's (NDRC) price supervision and anti-monopoly bureau, became the director of the NDRC's pricing agency as of November, the website of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, said.

Xu's promotion had been expected by China's antitrust community, who have been closely following his career.

Attorneys, executives and experts who have been drawn into investigations with the NDRC's price supervision and anti-monopoly bureau have complained of a culture of intimidation under Xu.

The agency's aggressive tactics coincide with an increasingly sobering business climate for foreign firms in China. Fears over the party's support for domestic firms has prompted some to declare the end of a golden age for foreign business in the world's second-largest economy.

Xu has denied his investigations are unfair or target foreign companies.

In his "leader inauguration" speech last Friday, Xu pledged to conduct "orderly price reform and give consumers more rights to choose".

Under Xu, the NDRC has stepped up its investigations into pricing practices, launching high-profile probes into infant formula, drugs, car makers and technology firms.

The NDRC's pricing agency has the authority to influence prices for everything from liquor to gasoline.

In August, financial news magazine Caixin reported that Cao Changqing, who recently retired as head of the pricing division at the NDRC, was being investigated. A former director at the NDRC was also being probed on suspicion of "taking bribes", according to China's top prosecutor.