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Ex-graftbuster's Verdict May Spell Trouble for Chinese Anti-corruption Czar
Dong Hong gets off easier than executed former finance boss
The January 28 “suspended death sentence” of Dong Hong, a former righthand man to Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, a former head of China’s anti-graft campaign, raises questions on the future of one of the leading figures in Chinese affairs along with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Wang was named in 2013 with great fanfare to carry out Xi’s anti-corruption campaign to take down “tigers” (senior officials) and “flies” (junior officials).
In China, the suspended death sentence means Dong, previously the second highest head of anti-corruption inspection teams, will escape execution if he provides information to the Chinese authorities on corruption among people possibly more powerful than himself. Dong’s sentencing shows China’s nine-year anti-graft crackdown, which resulted in the investigation and punishment of nearly 500 tigers and the expulsion of nearly one million Chinese Communist Party members, is not free of corruption.
Dong is far luckier than Lai Xiaomin, a former chairman of China Huarong Asset Management Company, the biggest state-owned manager of bad assets. Lai was executed a year ago, only 24 days after receiving the death sentence from a Chinese court on January 5, 2021. Senior officials convicted of severe corruption are normally given a suspended death sentence. The official announcement for Lai in January 2021 said he was convicted of taking RMB1.8 billion (US$281 million) in bribes and for bigamy.
But the hurried execution may have been a signal that Lai was guilty of more serious crimes than what was publicly announced, analysts say.
In contrast to Lai’s hasty execution, Dong’s suspended death sentence at the hands of the Intermediate People’s Court of Qingdao came about seven months after charges were announced against him on June 9, 2021.
The court said Dong in theory should be sentenced to death due to the enormity of his wrongdoings, but he repented and gave an account of all his crimes, so his death sentence was suspended. The suspension might encourage him to provide information to the Chinese authorities, which may implicate other people, an analyst of the Cercius Group, a geopolitical consultancy headquartered in Canada, told Asia Sentinel.
“His sentence must serve as a warning by Xi to Wang Qishan; the two (Wang and Xi) used to be close but have fallen apart during Xi’s second term,” another observer told Asia Sentinel.
Dong’s corruption spanned 21 years from 1999 to 2020, starting as an official involved in the liquidation of Guangdong International Trust & Investment Company Limited (GITIC), the largest Chinese state-owned enterprise to go bankrupt, Xinhua reported. Wang was the most senior official in charge of GITIC’s bankruptcy. Dong’s corruption subsequently included his time as an official of Hainan province, Beijing and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a Chinese anti-graft agency, the state news agency added. Dong was Wang’s subordinate during these postings.
Xi appointed Wang as CCDI secretary in November 2012 to head the anti-corruption campaign. He stepped down as CCDI secretary in October 2017, replaced by Zhao Leji.
“The downfall of Ren Zhiqiang, Dong Hong, Chen Feng and also Pan Jiahua reflects very poorly on Wang,” the Cercius Group analyst commented.
Ren, an old friend of Wang, was sentenced to 18 years in jail and fined RMB4.2 million for corruption by a Beijing court in September 2020, after he wrote an essay that indirectly criticized Xi without naming him. Chen, a former chairman of HNA Group, a private Chinese conglomerate, was detained by Chinese police in September 2021. Some of Wang’s relatives are suspected of being involved with HNA, but there is no conclusive evidence of corruption by Wang or his relatives. Pan, a former senior CCDI official, was arrested for suspected corruption in November last year.
“These investigations and sentencings directly impact Wang’s influence and importance inside the Party-State apparatus. However, this is unlikely to affect Wang’s overall safety once he steps down and retires,” the Cercius Group analyst said.
Xi is unlikely to go after Wang because the move would be too risky, as Wang still has allies inside the financial and banking sectors, the Cercius Group analyst explained. “Moreover, it would also erode the remainder of party elders’ support Xi still has.”
Prior to working for Wang, Dong was a secretary to Bo Yibo in the 1980s, a senior Chinese leader of the generation of Mao Zedong and father of Bo Xilai, a former senior Chinese official serving a life sentence for corruption, said the Cercius Group analyst. Through his connections to the Bo family, Dong was previously associated with the faction of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a rival of Xi, the analyst added.
An article about the affair in Global People, a Chinese state-owned magazine, on August 29, 2021, mentioned Bo Yibo several times but not Wang Qishan. Since Global People is a state-owned publication, its omission of Wang may be a hint that Wang will not be a target of the anti-corruption campaign he previously headed.
Why execute former finance chief?
The question arises as to why Dong is likely to avoid execution while Lai was executed so quickly. In recent years, the execution of officials for nonviolent crimes has been rare in China. Lai is the first senior official (“tiger”) to be executed since Xi launched the anti-corruption campaign in late 2012.
The reason for Lai’s execution was the amount of bribes he took was especially huge, he created a bad influence on society, and the damage he inflicted on the country and people was severe, the judge who sentenced him told reporters, reported the People’s Daily, a Chinese state newspaper, in January last year. In recent years, Chinese authorities have reduced the number of crimes punishable by death, but still reserve the death penalty for corruption, the judge added.