China's real 'House of Cards': TV series unveils graft excess

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese state television is airing a documentary series on President Xi Jinping's signature anti-corruption campaign in prime time this week, unveiling new footage and salacious details of high-profile corruption cases ahead of a key Communist Party meeting.

The eight-episode series, called "Always On the Road," is being beamed daily to hundreds of millions of Chinese homes through Oct 25 on CCTV's Channel 1.

Xi, who has pledged that his battle against official graft - now into its fourth year - will never be eased, is preparing to chair the ruling party's sixth plenum next week. Two documents on strengthening party discipline will be discussed and approved at the meeting, which is slated to start Monday (Oct 24) in Beijing.

The first episode was inter-spliced with excerpts from Xi's speeches and opened with the courtroom confession of Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief who was sentenced to life in prison in June last year. A series trailer featured previously unseen footage of two retired top commanders in the People's Liberation Army, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

Both appeared frail and aging, with their once dark hair turned gray. Xu died of cancer last year.

Li Chuncheng, a former deputy party chief in the western province of Sichuan and the so-called "first tiger" snared in the corruption crackdown, was shown weeping during his CCTV interview. "Life is a live broadcast where there is no repeat button," Li was shown as saying on camera. "I should accept punishment by the party organisation and the law."

"The series makes publicity preparations for the sixth plenum," said Zhu Lijia, a public affairs professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing. "It aims to show that corruption is a deep-seated socio-economic and political problem and calls for an enduring battle."

Xi's anti-graft campaign remains popular among average Chinese, with 83 per cent of those surveyed earlier this year by the Pew Research Center describing corruption as a problem - a larger share than any other issue. At the same time, 64 per cent said they believed the situation, which Xi has cast as a life-or-death battle for the party, would improve over the next five years.

The series displayed a dramatic flair worthy of Netflix's "House of Cards," which both Xi and his top graft-buster, Wang Qishan, have referenced. The CCTV documentary, however, sought to dispel any remaining aura still surrounding the once-powerful officials.

The program offered new details on cases, including those of Bai Enpei, a former senior lawmaker with the national legislature; and Zhou Benshun, a former party boss of the northern province of Hebei.

Footage showed furniture and tea collected by Bai and gifts of jade jewellery given to his wife, with one bracelet reportedly worth 15 million yuan (S$3 million).

Zhou Benshun was accused of spending more than 1 million yuan to employ two chefs and two domestic helpers - one tasked solely with taking care of his pets. His salary should be a little more than 100,000 yuan annually.

The program cited his temple visits and multiple shrines as evidence of "superstitious activities" frowned upon by the officially atheistic Communist Party. When his pet turtle died, he transcribed a Buddhist text to bury with it.

Bai was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve on Oct 9 for accepting bribes of almost a quarter of a billion yuan. That same day Zhou was formally charged with bribery.