Display of wealth becomes taboo for Chinese officials amid anti-corruption campaign

A man taking photographs of the tombstones of the ancestral relatives of China's former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who was jailed for life on June 11. PHOTO: AFP

In northern Shanxi province, there are cemeteries where many rich people have built luxury tombs for themselves.

With matching stone lions and elaborate rock carvings, they can cost a few million yuan each and might be bigger than an apartment.

But these days, some of them have no names.

They belong to officials who were afraid of letting people find out about their wealth, cemetery caretakers say, as China's extensive anti-corruption campaign literally hounds the guilty to their graves.

"Fanfu" or "anti-corruption" has become the top catchphrase under President Xi Jinping. The campaign is unprecedented in its scale and has not spared political heavyweights.

The latest bigwig set to be charged with corruption is Mr Ling Jihua, 58, a former top aide to ex-president Hu Jintao. On Monday night , Chinese state media reported that Mr Ling, who has been under investigation since December, has been expelled from the Communist Party and handed over to prosecutors.

The crackdown on graft and the austerity drive Mr Xi ordered after taking power in November 2012 has greatly impacted China and the ruling party. They have also shown how enmeshed corruption is with the running of the country.

For officials, "fanfu" has meant reduced travel and the end of extravagant dinners replete with shark's fin, alcohol and expensive cigarettes. Gone too are luxury official cars and VIP membership to golf clubs or entertainment venues.

In short, no open display of wealth or profligate spending.

Fuelled by a belief that the survival of the party is at stake, Mr Xi's anti-corruption drive - carried out by thousands of investigators at the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection (CCDI) - has gone farther and longer and brought down more officials than expected.

More than 100,000 errant officials have been caught in less than three years, with suspects nabbed everywhere: at train stations, in luxury hotels, at home. Some were defiant, while others trembled in fear and begged for mercy when the authorities came knocking, Chinese media reported.

Further afield, enforcement agents have fanned out to at least 40 countries and repatriated more than 800 graft suspects since July last year, when China launched a large-scale operation to go after corrupt officials who had fled overseas. Mr Xi has even taken unprecedented aim at the military and detained high-ranking officers.

But the biggest jolt to the system was the arrest of former Politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang, who up till three years ago was one of China's most powerful men. In July last year, the party announced they were investigating him. On June 11, following a closed-door trial, he was sentenced to life in prison for graft.

Zhou's downfall broke unspoken rules in China, a country which has never indicted such a senior leader for any crime before.

This has heightened the sense of caution - even fear - among China's 40 million civil servants, who have been asked by anti-graft authorities to "purify" themselves.

Civil servants told The Straits Times that expenses are now checked very carefully.

The campaign has also spawned a flurry of educational activities in its support.

The provincial CCDI in central Henan, for instance, has been staging an "anti-corruption play" called Quan Jia Fu since last November , which has played to 150,000 people - mostly party members in more than 100 performances in theatres in the province.

In April, the play moved to Beijing for the first time and was watched by 2,000 officials, some of whom were reportedly moved to tears by the fictional story of a rural official whose rise and subsequent fall due to corruption tears his family apart.

Elsewhere, Mr He Yong, an official from the south-west province of Sichuan, organised a jail visit for about 20 fellow officials in May, in a "sobering experience" that brought them face-to-face with inmates found guilty of graft. "It was overwhelming, coming so close to people who were jailed for corruption and hearing their stories," he told The Straits Times.

Public servants are also shown videos of confessions by those caught for graft.

"My office regularly gathers us around to show videos of interviews with corrupt officials who were caught," one 42-year-old civil servant told The Straits Times. "They explain how they started taking bribes and how much they regret their actions."

The combination of going after the corrupt and education against graft has worked in that some have come out of the woodwork of their own accord.

In Fuqing county of coastal Fujian province, for example, an average of five officials have come forward every month this year to surrender themselves for graft in the hope of getting a lighter sentence, according to local media reports. Authorities have recovered more than 8,000,000 yuan (S$1.8 million) from them.

"Investigators have already arrested my superiors. It's only a matter of time before they would reach me," one official surnamed Lin, who had stepped forward, was quoted saying.

But the campaign has also had less desirable results, including making civil service jobs less attractive.

Applications are falling, with the number of applicants last year being the lowest in five years. Furthermore, more than 10,000 government workers resigned in the three weeks following the Chinese New Year holiday this year, according to popular Chinese job-search website Zhaopin. That is an increase of almost one-third from the same period last year.

The campaign has even been linked to an uptick in suicides triggered by guilt or shame, with media reports saying the number of officials who took their own lives has more than doubled since its start.

Some officials, paralysed by fear or due to a lack of incentive, have taken a passive attitude towards their duties, including delaying decisions on projects.

Analysts say the passivity among officials caused by the austerity and anti-corruption drives has partly contributed to the world's second-largest economy losing momentum, as China's growth hit its slowest pace in six years at the start of 2015.

The worst-hit sectors include real estate, food and luxury goods. In a report released in January, consultancy firm Bain said China's luxury market shrank 1 per cent last year - the first decline it detected since it began tracking the market in 2000.

Companies have had to adapt. At its peak in 2012, half of the sales of Kweichow Moutai - a prestigious brand of the sorghum-based spirit "baijiu" favoured at business meetings - came from government-related consumers.

Prices have since tumbled from 2,200 yuan to about 800 yuan because of the anti-corruption campaign, and distributors no longer have to pay for the goods months in advance.

Meanwhile, luxury brands like Gucci and Chanel slashed prices by up to 50 per cent this year, while 56 five-star hotels asked to be downgraded last year to win back government officials who have been barred from high-end establishments.

Businessman Wang Jiuzhong, who has been running a dried beef product business for more than a decade, has partially switched to selling raw frozen beef, after government orders plunged last year.

"Government departments used to buy our dried beef as gifts, easily spending 10,000 yuan each time," said Mr Wang, 50. "That's gone now. Officials don't buy from us anymore. We can't even sell 10,000 yuan of dried beef in two weeks."

However, Dr Chen Gang, a research fellow of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, feels that the corruption crackdown will help China's plan for economic restructuring.

"China's economy currently depends too much on government investment and high-end consumption," he said. "It's not sustainable in the long-run, and it causes social tensions and environmental problems."

Analysts say China's anti-corruption drive may enter a lull following Mr Ling's fall, with retired military leader Guo Boxiong being the only other senior personality still linked to a possible corruption investigation. They note that the pace of nabbing senior officials appears to be slowing, as Mr Xi prepares to close ranks within the party ahead of a major leadership change in 2017.

But the campaign has already left its mark.

"What we're doing is not cosmetic," said Mr He. "It has impacted everyone."


Additional reporting by Lina Miao

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