The Ides of March did not bode well for Yunnan province’s most controversial official. Qiu He, Yunnan’s Vice Party Secretary is being investigated for alleged corruption by the government’s corruption watchdog agency for “serious violations of discipline and law”, a common euphemism for graft.
State media reported the opening of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigation into Qiu on Sunday March, 15.
Qiu He was in Beijing at the time of the announcement, attending the yearly National People’s Congress there, along with the rest of the Party leadership from Yunnan.
He is the latest in a number of top Yunnan officials to have been nabbed for corruption in the past year. Following the investigation of former vice governor of the province, Shen Peiping, in March 2014, former Kunming Party Secretary Zhang Tianxin and former Yunnan Party Secretary Bai Enpei were all taken down for graft.
Before taking up the position of deputy Party secretary of Yunnan in 2011, Qiu He was the Party secretary of the provincial capital, Kunming, starting in late 2007.
A controversial city-builder
Originally from Jiangsu province, Qiu was known as an anti-graft crusader and free market reformer. He began his meteoric rise in politics as the Party secretary of northern Jiangsu’s Suqian city, where he privatized local hospitals and schools and reformed the city’s infrastructure.
In Kunming, Qiu began his tenure by organizing a taskforce to ensure city officials arrived to work on time and limited their lunch breaks to thirty minutes. Within a week of taking office in 2007 he instituted a policy linking local political futures of local officials to waste water pollution into the feeder rivers of Kunming’s Lake Dianchi, one of China’s most polluted bodies of water. His passionate speeches on Yunnan’s development often highlighted the need to turn Yunnan from a backwater frontier province into a fast-developing regional hub.
He was the catalyst for a swath of controversial infrastructure projects in Kunming, including a new international airport finished in 2012 and an expansive subway system, still under construction and over budget. The fog-stricken location of Kunming’s Changshui international airport, 40km outside of the city is a common source of frustration for Kunming’s citizens. During the winter months, the airport will often close unexpectedly, stranding thousands of passengers and costing airlines millions.
Among Kunmingers, Qiu He is also known for demolishing a majority of Kunming’s 300-plus “urban villages” – poorly-constructed, low-income neighborhoods that dotted the city’s modern landscape. Many of these villages were replaced by housing developments built by businessmen from Jiangsu, Qiu He’s home province. While Qiu He’s economic polices are often attributed to the skyrocketing rates of growth in Yunnan province (average 12% over last 5 years), now that China’s real estate market is cooling off, the Spring City’s blue skies are marred by dense and unsightly high-rise housing projects, many of which have completely stopped construction. During Qiu He’s tenure, this pattern of unfettered real estate development was also copied in scenic and popular tourist regions such as Dali and Xishuangbanna, greatly decreasing their natural and cultural values.
Attracting outside investment proves fatal
While rumor and speculation are bound to follow the announcement of Qiu’s takedown, many cite deals made with his Jiangsu and Zhejiang business connections as reason for the investigation.
The New Luosiwan International Trade Center, with an area of more than 3 million square meters, is one of the world’s largest warehouse distribution centers and the final stop before Chinese-made goods are shipped onto destinations in Southeast Asia. It was built with an investment of more than 3 billion renminbi ($500 million) from Liu Weigao, a Jiangsu businessman most famous for establishing Yiwu’s China Commodity City, the world’s largest small commodities market, in Zhejiang province. Qiu He knows Liu, a National People’s Congress representative to Jiangsu’s Suqian city, from his time as Party secretary there. Once in Kunming, Qiu He recruited Liu to invest in New Luosiwan as part of his economic development policy. When the CCDI announced an investigation into Liu Weigao in February 2015, speculation circulated that Qiu He’s downfall was imminent.
According to one source at a local bank who wished to remain anonymous, Qiu’s demise was a popular topic of discussion at the office. Liu Weigao had millions in savings seized after he was investigated in February, along with a number of business loans associated with New Luosiwan that have yet to be paid back. The source and the source’s colleagues knew of Qiu He’s connection to Liu Weigao and openly speculated prior to Sunday whether Qiu would be investigated himself.
In fact, Qiu was scheduled to visit the bank’s local offices in downtown Kunming this week for an investigation of the bank’s performance. The source and colleagues spent the weekend at the office preparing for the Vice Party Secretary’s visit. However, the work appears to be all for naught, after Qiu did not come back from Beijing Sunday.
An even bigger target
Despite his controversial track record in Yunnan, Qiu He was known as an official who cared more about his promising political path rather than benefiting financially from his position. Qiu was an extremely cautious politician who is known only to have met with supplicants during office hours, and not in decadent KTV parlors or in exclusive social clubs.
Whereas 2014 saw a raft of top Yunnanese officials taken down for their connections to the disgraced Zhou Yongkang, Qiu He’s investigation appears unrelated. Instead it may mark a shift in focus from the Sichuan-based clique that formed under Zhou to an even bigger target.
Qiu He is associated with a political faction related to Li Yuanchao, current vice president of China. Li, the former Jiangsu Party Secretary from 2003 to 2007, is a major power broker in the province and likely oversaw Qiu He’s rise. Behind Li Yuanchao however, stands former President Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the country’s development in the 1990s. Jiang’s clique includes officials from Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.
Qiu He could be the first top official from the Jiang clique to be taken down during Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign. Further fueling speculation of a crackdown on the Jiang clique, the Governor and Provincial Party Secretary of Jiangsu province were nowhere to be found at this year’s recently concluded “two sessions” (lianghui). Some analysts see current President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption as serving the dual purpose of restoring the public’s confidence in the Party and eliminating Xi’s political rivals.
Many Kunmingers welcomed news of the downfall of former top Yunnanese officials Bai Enpai, Shen Peiping, and Zhang Tianxin with support and expressed satisfaction; however reactions to Qiu He’s ousting are mixed, particularly among investment groups from outside of Yunnan. A source close to the situation remarked that many of Kunming’s Jiangsu businessmen left the city after hearing about Qiu’s investigation. His friends with connections to Qiu, many of whom are responsible for large chunks of Yunnan’s commerce, have all cancelled their cell phone subscriptions and are currently unreachable. Their fears, understandably justified, lie in speculation that once Xi’s political rivals are eliminated, those businessmen connected to them will soon come under the gun.