Could China's 'Tigers' and 'Flies' Include 'Watchdogs?'

Charges against former anti-corruption chief’s top aide could blemish him

By: Toh Han Shih

The prospects of Wang Qishan, the former head of China’s anti-graft campaign, appear in question, with his former right-hand man facing massive bribe-taking charges, raising questions as well over the effectiveness of the nine-year drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping to stamp out endemic corruption.

Wang (pictured above with Xi), China’s vice president, was previously one of China’s most powerful officials and is now in semi-retirement but still plays a political role. He has been seen as a model of probity since he joined Xi in power in 2012. He has dealt with US President Barack Obama and gained the admiration of Lee Kuan Yew, the late founding prime minister of Singapore. Wang was named by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the world’s most influential people.

But, a British consultant told Asia Sentinel, “(Wang’s) in trouble. Perhaps going after Wang’s network is a warning to him to keep his head down lest he join his associates.” If Wang were to fall, the shock to the system would be enormous.

On June 9, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced indictments against Dong Hong, former vice head of China’s anti-corruption inspection teams. The procuratorate accused Dong of taking “especially huge amounts of bribes” when he worked under Wang in Hainan province, Beijing and China’s anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

Dong will be tried in court at some unspecified date, the procuratorate said. Trial in Chinese courts is usually a prelude to conviction. To get an idea of what punishment Dong may possibly receive, Chinese authorities leveled the same charges of taking “especially huge amounts of bribes” at Lai Xiaomin as justification for executing him in January. Lai was previously chairman of China Huarong Asset Management Company, the biggest state-owned manager of bad assets.

“Of course there will be some very obvious reasons to be concerned if you are Wang Qishan,” said a source with ties to Chinese police.

“Even if Wang didn’t benefit from the corruption of his right-hand man, how could he not have some inkling of the extent of his corrupt activities, especially in his role as anti-corruption czar for China? Willful blindness is not a defense for Wang, who has made many enemies during the last eight or so years of the corruption crackdown. This will represent a huge crack in his armor for his enemies to move against him,” the source said.

Xi Jinping appointed Wang as CCDI secretary in November 2012 to head the anti-corruption campaign, which has resulted in the jailing or dismissal of more than 120 high-ranking officials, including about a dozen military officers, several senior executives of state-owned companies and five national leaders. More than 100,000 people have been indicted in a campaign designed as part of a much wider drive to clean up malfeasance within party ranks and shore up party unity. It has also raised criticism that Xi was using the campaign to hamstring political rivals.

At the least, Dong’s indictment indicates corruption remains a serious problem in China, with even top anti-corruption officials themselves corrupt, the source said. “Nobody is untouchable and regardless of how powerful you may be, the anti-corruption drive is real and it seemingly does not discriminate when going after corruption at all levels of society.”

Wang stepped down as CCDI secretary in October 2017 when he was 69 years old, replaced by Zhao Leji. Xi had vowed to catch “tigers” (senior officials) and “flies” (minor officials) in his anti-corruption, which is ongoing. Under Wang’s tenure as the head of the anti-graft campaign, tigers like Zhou Yongkang, the country’s former top law enforcement official, have been jailed. To date, the Chinese government has not accused Wang of any wrongdoing, and it remains to be seen whether Wang will be a tiger taken down.

“The charges against Dong Hong are clearly a warning aimed at Wang Qishan, since Dong Hong is accused of taking particularly huge amounts of bribes while working for/with Wang in Hainan, Beijing and the anti-corruption agency,” said a Western businessman who declined to be named.

Wang, who is now 72, was party secretary of Hainan from 2002 to 2003 and mayor of Beijing from 2004 to 2007.

Over the past few years, Guo Wengui, a Chinese fugitive in the US, has made unproven allegations of corruption on social media against Wang and his relatives in connection with HNA Group, a private Chinese conglomerate. In earlier media reports, HNA denied Guo’s unsubstantiated allegations. Guo, also called Miles Kwok, is wanted by the Chinese authorities for fraud which he allegedly committed when he was a businessman in China.

A few years ago, HNA splashed over US$40 billion on overseas assets including stakes in Deutsche Bank and the Hilton hotel chain. The company, as Reuters reported, is now undergoing bankruptcy restructuring with US$187 billion in claims from 67,400 creditors.

The Western businessman told Asia Sentinel that when he did business with HNA for many years, it was always understood internally that Wang was somehow linked to HNA as a sort of “godfather.” Some HNA executives told the source that Wang was involved with their company at very senior levels, while others smiled when the businessman asked them how Wang was linked to their company. Wang's connection to HNA possibly stems from his tenure as the top official of Hainan, where HNA is headquartered, said the businessman.

Wang has a reputation as a troubleshooter for the Chinese government, forged in the late 1990s as an official in Guangdong province, when he oversaw the collapse of a local state-owned enterprise, Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation (GITIC), with billions of dollars in debt.

According to a Wikileaks on June 4, 2009, Lee Kuan Yew was said to regard Wang as “an exceptional talent, very assured and efficient” for his handling of the SARS epidemic “superbly” when he was the top official of Hainan. Lee also praised Wang for his role in coordinating the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The question is whether the troubleshooter is now in trouble. In China, the downfall of a senior official’s underlings has sometimes led to the official’s downfall. For example, Qin Yu, a former aide to Chen Liangyu, a former party secretary of Shanghai, was arrested in August 2006. Chen was dismissed as Shanghai party secretary the following month and in March 2008 was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

But not all top Chinese officials suffer from the downfall of their subordinates. Ling Jihua, previously a principal advisor to former Chinese President Hu Jintao, was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption on July 4, 2016. However, Hu has not been affected by Ling’s fate.

“If Wang gets taken down for corruption the first thing to ask is what did he do and how did he benefit? This has all the hallmarks of “palace politics” where the internecine rivalries are always bubbling under the surface as players maneuver for power and influence. This is less about corruption and more about internal politics,” said the source with links to Chinese police.

Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.

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