The date is June 30th, 2014. The Communist party head of Guangdong Province is presiding over a meeting with forty-five of the province’s most powerful district leaders in attendance. One of them, a bespectacled, avuncular fifty-year-old with implausibly thick hair, raises his hand to ask a question.
At the podium, the party head hesitates. He tells the man to wait for just a second, and then walks out of the conference room.
Rumors circulating on China’s popular social media platform WeChat describe the event as follows:
Moments later, armed guards stormed into the room announcing the arrest of the budding Rogaine model. Corruption charges, they say. Graft. The very “unhealthy tendencies” that President Xi Jinping promised to sniff out and quash during his latest anti-corruption campaign. President Xi vowed to catch both “flies” and “tigers”—minor officials, and senior ones—and today, he will have caught himself quite the beautiful Bengal: Wan Qingliang is the Communist Party’s Secretary of Guangzhou, (China’s third most populous city), making him one of the party’s most preeminent officials.
The guards supposedly stood behind his chair and handed him a piece of paper that listed some of the crimes of which he was accused. To sign it would be to acknowledge his guilt. He did so, all the while repeating: “Ren zhui! Ren zhui!”—“I know! I’m guilty, I’m guilty!” Then, trembling, he stood up, xiao bian shi jin (a Chinese term to describe the state of someone after they have just defecated themselves in fear). Poor guy—the question he was never able to ask was probably whether or not he could use the restroom.
Many teenagers are familiar with a much more informal phrase, often used in the context of being horrified after a horror movie, to describe what he supposedly did in that room. But Wan Qingliang was actually terrified, and had good reason to be.
Consider this: after he was led out of the room, the forty-four other officials allegedly sat glued in their chairs. Witnesses described them as sweating profusely, nervously wiping their foreheads, with absolute panic on their faces. They, too, had good reason for fear: one of them would probably be next. The question for them was no longer whether or not they had committed the same crimes for which Wan Qingliang had just been arrested; the question was how long ago did they make those deals and take those bribes? When did China’s National Bureau of Corruption Prevention start this latest investigation? No one was absolutely sure what would happen to Wan, but all of them understood enough to be afraid.
Corrupt politicians are so ubiquitous in China that governmental dishonesty has essentially become an accepted fact in Chinese society. With the rise of social media, however, came an unprecedented level of transparency in the Chinese government, permitted or not. Enraged citizens could now snap pictures of their government aides wearing Rolexes or their mayor’s much-too-lavish house, and spread them like wildfire on the Internet.
China’s efforts to catch corrupt officials are, in part, a response to this kind of civilian distrust and anger. However, graft also poses some serious threats to the sustainability of the nation’s economy, and undermines the international and domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party. It has long been a popular sentiment among the Chinese people that their nation could not advance further while their government embroiled itself in third-world crony capitalism. Now, President Xi is trying to win his government some much needed popularity points by proving that change and progress are not only possible, but one of his biggest priorities.
So what happens now?
Wan Qingliang will be thoroughly investigated: as Guangzhou’s most powerful official, he’ll have plenty for which to answer. So far, allegations stand that his associates were able to profit from land sales he authorized and that he was aware that some of his “partners” took bribes from real estate companies. In many cases, construction firms bribe officials to allow the building of projects far larger than necessary (or eco-friendly) in order to increase profit. The officials, having received some form of compensation, then willingly shell out taxpayer money to fund their end of the stipulation. During his time overseeing the city, Qingliang was said to have taken part in these kinds of deals, as well as in other government-sanctioned construction projects involving land strategically purchased by his close friends.
After investigation, he will be publicly stripped of his Communist Party titles and affiliations, then put on trial. In a country where yao mian zi, or “saving face” is venerated almost to the point of being sacred, many officials see public humiliation as a punishment far worse than life in prison.
As Wan Qingliang’s trial approaches, all of China should be prepared for the airing of his dirty laundry. If the rumors about his arrest are true, he’ll have plenty of it.
Buckley, Chris. “China’s Anticorruption Campaign Unseats a Powerful Party Chief in Guangzhou.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 June 2014. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.
Cole, Michael. “Guangzhou Party Leader’s Fall Tied to Corrupt Real Estate Deals.” Mingtiandi. N.p., 15 July 2014. Web. 03 Aug. 2014.
Oster, Shai. “President Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Biggest Since Mao.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2014.