China's Corrupt Watchdog
On January 12, 2009, a group of men entered the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing and walked into the office of Zheng Xiaodong, an assistant minister and tenth in the national police hierarchy. They arrested him and escorted him past astonished colleagues into a fleet of cars waiting outside.
They were officials of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Communist Party, China's most powerful investigative body, charged with rooting out corruption and malpractice among the party's 76 million members. It has more power than the police or the judicial system.
"The role of the CCDI is to solve the problem of corruption. But now the CCDI itself has become a hotbed of corruption," reads the foreword to a new book on the institution, Black Box, a Chinese-language book just published in Hong Kong. It argues that the CCDI operates without restraint or supervision, has an unlimited budget, is unaccountable and is used by leaders as a weapon of political struggle to attack their opponents and dissidents.
The CCDI is a secret organization independent of the legal and police system; it conducts investigations according to its own rules. It has no website and is not accountable to any public institution. It is a key part of the party's organization and ability to remain in power.
Such books are rare and could not be published in China. The three authors do not give their names but describe themselves as ‘not ordinary Chinese' who composed the book and presented it to a Hong Kong publisher.
"In countries ruled by law, the judicial authorities must operate according to law," it said. "If special methods must be used in special circumstances, even more should the legal authorities follow correct procedures and strictly control their scale and scope."
It called for the abolition of one of the CCDI's main operational methods -- shuang gui (double rule), under which officers detain suspects for questioning in a secret place for an unlimited time. It called it a form of extra-legal detention used when the CCD has insufficient evidence against a suspect and needs a confession out of him.
Usually the unsuspecting suspect is told to report to a hotel or guest-house for a meeting and, when he arrives, is detained. Officers remove his mobile phone and he has no contact with the outside world. His family and colleagues do not know where he is; he can be held there for months at a time.
Many cannot withstand the pressure. According to the Chinese media, more than 100 people under shuang gui last year committed suicide.
The party set up an internal anti-corruption committee in 1927, just six years after its foundation. After 1949, it became the CCDI. Inactive during the Cultural Revolution, it was reconstituted in 1978. As befits such a sensitive post, its leaders since then have been among the most powerful men in China – Chen Yun, Qiao Shi, Wei Jianxing, Wu Guanzheng and, since 2007, He Guoqiang.
The arrest of Zheng Xiaodong is a good example of its power. A native of Shantou, Zheng was a highly accomplished officer who made his name in the Guangdong CID; he cracked major cases, including the arrest of ‘Big Spender' Cheung Tze-keung, whose gang kidnapped and ransomed Victor Li, son of Li Ka-shing. He was Hong Kong's most famous gangster in the 1990s, owning dozens of luxury cars, including a bright yellow Lamborghini.
As a reward for his success, Zheng was promoted to Beijing, where he became head of the economic crime bureau and, in April 2005, assistant minister and a member of the ministry's Communist Party Committee.
But, after arresting Gome chairman Huang Guangyu in November 2008, police discovered that Zheng had taken money from Huang and had close relations with gangland leaders. The case was too sensitive for the police to handle, so they passed it to the CCDI. During the course of his interrogation over the last 12 months, Zheng attempted to commit suicide.
Black Box argues that the officials of CCDI have absolute power, which, in the words of Lord Acton, corrupts absolutely. It gave the examples of two provincial CCDI leaders.
One was Zeng Jinchun, leader of the CCDI in Chenzhou city, Hunan province, who, with his wife and children, took bribes totaling 31.5 million yuan during his term in office between 1997 and 2006. He also had 28.77 million yuan, the source of which he could not explain. Much of his wealth came from payments from building contractors and the mining industry, for which he was responsible as well as party discipline.
In exchange for money from mine owners, he protected them by using the security forces to suppress farmers who protested against the mining methods and using shuang gui to arrest people who opposed him, including the owner of a private company who refused to pay him 400,000 yuan in ‘protection money'.
One police chief who attempted to oppose him was forced to flee Chenzhou for fear of his life. Finally, after years of complaints by the public, Zeng was arrested. In August 2009, a court in Changsha sentenced him to death.
Sentenced with him was Li Dalun, party chief of Chenzhou between February 1999 and May 2006, who took 13.74 million yuan in bribes and had 22 million yuan in unexplained income. He was given a suspended death sentence. As the top anti-corruption official in Chenzhou, Zeng should have arrested Li; instead, he worked with him to amass a fortune. In total, 158 officials and businessmen in Chenzhou were involved in crimes and corruption.
The second example was Wang Huayuan, head of the CCDI in Guangdong and Zhejiang province from May 1998 until April 12, 2009, when he was in turn taken away by CCDI officers for interrogation.
They found that, like Zeng, Wang had abused his power to amass a large amount of money in bribes and gifts. He made frequent trips abroad to gamble and had a love life worthy of a television soap opera. He was fired from his post and the party and is waiting criminal charges. In other words, he was committing the very offences he was responsible for stopping.
In his public speeches, Wang described the evils of which he himself was guilty. "More than 50 per cent of corrupt officials have mistresses; this cannot be allowed," he said. "Such officials start by losing their political faith, then commit economic crimes and have problems in their private lives. If the public discover corruption, they should report it by letter, telephone or e-mail. There is a national telephone number you can call. Transparency is the best method of fighting corruption."
In a speech in August 2008, he spoke of the abuses of the shuang gui system and told investigators to behave cautiously and correctly and not abuse their power.
Black Box said that complaints from the public about corrupt officials were one of several factors taken into account by CCDI staff in deciding whether to launch an investigation. Others are the strength of evidence, the possibility to collect more, the suspect's role in the government and, most important, his political strength. The decision is as much a political one as a legal one.
In the case of Wang Huayuan, the CCDI in Beijing considered taking him in for questioning as early as 2006 but decided against it, because senior officials believed it would deal too severe a blow to the public image of the commission if such a senior member were detained. Wang had served as the party secretary of the CCDI in two of China's most important provinces, Guangdong and Zhejiang, and had attended national meetings as a member of the presiding committee.
The book said that the commission could not touch members of the national leadership and their families. "These princelings have no fear of going to prison. They can go into business as they wish. But this protection does not extend to princelings at the provincial and city level. Their parents run the risk of prison for the crimes of their children."
In October 2008, a court in Nanjing sentenced Jiang Renjie, vice-major of Suzhou, one of the richest cities in China, to death for taking 100 million yuan in bribes from five property companies between 2001 and 2004.
Black Box, however, said Jiang's real crime was to misuse his power to rig the city's lucrative auction market for a firm owned by his son. As a result, the company had 40 per cent share of a market worth 800 million yuan a year. It said that public outrage against corruption was one of the main reasons for the protests last July in Xinjiang, by both Han and Uighur, against the government of Wang Lequan, party chief of the region since 1994. People from both communities called for him to resign. He was finally dismissed in April this year
Black Box said that Xinjiang was a special case in China, in that the writ of CCDI did not run there. When it received complaints against officials in the region, it sent them to Wang and his administration to deal with.
"He is the emperor of Xinjiang, in power for longer than any other provincial or regional leader. He controls everything. Many large projects have gone to Xinjiang in recent years, of whom more than half have gone to Shandong companies, angering both Uighurs and Hans who live there," it said. Wang is a native of Shandong.
It said that the CCDI had received letters from Uighurs protesting against luxury mansions built with public money by two top Uighur officials. It passed them to Wang, who decided to take no further action. He told the two: "if you follow me and the party, you have nothing to worry about from the public." During his time in office, few officials in Xinjiang have been tried for corruption.
This authority and lack of outside supervision gaveWang enormous power and made government officials extremely obedient to him.
Since 1993, the CCDI has been located in two 10-storey buildings in the Ping An Li district of Beijing, surrounded by a wall four meters high. The compound has no signboard to indicate the institution inside but armed soldiers keep out unwelcome visitors.
It has 20 departments, of which eight are responsible for carrying out investigations. Each has responsibility for different sectors of the government and the economy. For example, one is responsible for the economic ministries and the big state companies, like the tobacco monopoly and the bureaus which administer state assets and collect statistics, and state firms in power, petrochemicals and telecommunications.
The committee has a party committee which meets to decide whether to open an investigation. If so, it sets up a team, with three months for initial inquiries. Each director of the eight key departments can authorize phone tapping, including private conversations and mobile phones.
Black Box said that, initially, the CCDI conducted its phone-tapping through a bureau of the Ministry of Public Security. But it discovered that this led to many leaks because of the close links between the police and city and provincial governments, with those under surveillance being tipped off that the CCDI was after them.
So it switched to working with the technical and surveillance department of the Ministry of State Security, which mainly targets external enemies. Their co-operation has been more harmonious.
In February 2007, a senior officer of the CCDI said that, of its cases the year before, 46.2 per cent had come from reports from the public, submitted to it or the Ministry of Supervision. Investigations involving people at the level of provincial government can be complex and involve hundreds of officers, including those borrowed from regional officers.
One such investigation in 2006, against the then party chief of Shanghai, Cheng Liangyu, involved 260 officers, from Jilin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and other provinces and from different departments, including investigators from the military. Such an investigation could only have been launched with approval from the highest levels of the government.
In September 2006, Chen was fired from his post and in April 2008 was sentenced by a court in Tianjin to 18 years in prison for accepting US$340,000 in bribes and abusing power. Many people in Shanghai believe that he was the loser in a political struggle, in which President Hu Jintao wanted to get rid of a protégé of his predecessor Jiang Zemin who had openly challenged his administration.
"Many members of the public praise the CCDI for its work in arresting corrupt officials," said Wang Guomin, a legal consultant in Hong Kong. "Actually, the CCDI is a form of protection for party members. It handles investigations first and decides whether to pass the cases to the legal system. It can save party members from punishment they might receive from the legal system. If you have a strong patron, you will not be punished."
He cited the example of Zhang Wenkang, minister of health during the SARS epidemic who was fired in April 2003. Just six months later, he was made vice-chairman of the Song Qingling Foundation and, in 2005, given a senior post in the China People's Political Consultative Conference. He was an associate of President Jiang Zemin, who brought him from Shanghai.
By the end of July 2003, SARS had killed 349 people in China and 299 in Hong Kong. "Many Chinese believe that, given the number of dead, Zhang should have been tried and executed for criminal negligence," said Wang. "But Jiang protected him. After the storm had passed, he gave him a nice post, as if nothing had happened.
"What is clear that the government will not follow the advice of Black Box. One reason why the Communist Party remains in power after 60 years is its strong internal organization, of which the CCDI is an important part. It will be retained," Wang said.