Veteran graft buster heads China's new super agency

Supervision Minister Yang Xiaodu will be the first director of the National Supervision Commission.
Supervision Minister Yang Xiaodu will be the first director of the National Supervision Commission.

Umbrella anti-graft agency has wide powers to probe both party officials and public servants

A senior graft buster has been appointed to head China's new anti-corruption super agency that has wide authority to investigate both party officials and public servants.

Supervision Minister Yang Xiaodu was confirmed yesterday by China's Parliament as the first director of the National Supervision Commission (NSC), a choice that surprised some political observers who were expecting Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhao Leji to helm it.

The NSC is a new agency written into Chinese law last week that will merge the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) powerful anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), with other anti-graft departments, including the Ministry of Supervision.

The agency is a state organ on a par with the State Council or Cabinet, and will have remit over all public-sector bodies. Mr Yang told reporters last week that the NSC will supervise thrice as many people as existing watchdogs.

Anti-graft officials will also have expanded authority and powers, including detention of up to six months.

Mr Yang, 64, worked in Shanghai from 2001 to 2013, coinciding with President Xi Jinping's brief stint as the city's party chief in 2007. He is also widely seen as a protege of former anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, who was named vice-president on Saturday.

Among Mr Yang's top priorities will be the institutionalisation of Mr Xi's signature campaign against corruption - which has punished over 1.5 million officials since 2012 - by bringing together all anti-graft resources under one roof.

In an editorial in the People's Daily last week, Mr Yang wrote that a single department coordinating corruption investigations was necessary to "prevent political infighting, unclear responsibilities, and evasion of problems".

"There is overlap between party and state institutions, overlap in responsibilities and an unreasonable separation of powers between the central and local agencies," he said.

"If these issues are not solved now, they will certainly obstruct the development of the party and country."

While some legal experts have criticised the expanded authority and powers of anti-graft officials under the NSC - including search, seizure and freezing of assets - state media analysts saw the new agency as a logical next step to turn China's ad hoc and reactive anti-corruption campaigns into a regular part of the state.

"It's a one-party system, so if the party tolerates corruption, then the party is corrupt," said CCTV political commentator Einar Tangen. "Therefore, there can be zero corruption - this is not like the US or other democracies where you say I'm going to vote for (your competitor) and there's a pressure release valve."

But other political observers said the NSC may not be as influential as when it was first mooted.

Mr Yang has been deputy secretary of the CCDI since 2014, which makes him subordinate to Mr Zhao, who heads the party watchdog. And unlike Mr Zhao, Mr Yang is not part of the PBSC, the highest echelon of political power in Beijing.

This means that while the NSC will be the umbrella agency under which the CCDI operates, the latter is likely to maintain significant autonomy and even decision-making authority.

This is in line with the CCP's mantra that all authority radiates from the party, said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.

"Yang's role - investigating public servants - would not be dissimilar to what he had been doing before, even though in theory the frame of reference of the NSC is wider than that of the Ministry of Supervision," said Dr Lam.

"Its parameters will be extended, but for high-level officials, questions of principles or major decision-making functions, Yang could still defer to Zhao Leji."

A law that sets out the NSC's powers is expected to be passed tomorrow, the last day of the annual meetings of China's Parliament.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Veteran graft buster heads China's new super agency'. Print Edition | Subscribe