Tag Archives: anti-corruption campaign

In China’s hinterlands, a new life for Myanmar’s Rohingya

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

On February 12, 2015 Myanmar President Thein Sein, prompted by protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon, reversed a decision made ten days earlier to give voting rights to the country’s Rohingya population. The reversal, while surprising to some, was only the latest in a series of events to befall the Muslim minority who call western Myanmar’s Rakhine state home.

The Rohingya of Myanmar (also known as Burma) have lost more than voting rights in the past. Regarded as one of the world’s most oppressed peoples, the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group that speak a dialect of Bengali and are thought to be descended from Arab and Persian traders.

Persecuted at Home

Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for most of the latter half of the 20th century and the current, nominally civilian government, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered chronic poverty, food insecurity, harassment and forced labor, among other human rights abuses. Following Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were denied citizenship and are still referred to as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by government officials. They are neither allowed to travel outside their hometown nor marry without official approval.

Poor relations between the Muslim Rohingya and their neighbors have only made things worse. Tensions between Rakhine state’s Muslim population and the majority Rakhine ethnicity, who are Buddhist, boiled over in 2012, leading to anti-Muslim riots that spread throughout the country. In Rakhine state alone, over 200 people were killed and whole villages were burned to the ground. Conditions have not improved for Myanmar’s Rohingya population since then. The current boat crisis of thousands of Bengali and Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is a consequence of awful conditions at home.

The Rohingya, however are certainly not the only group struggling in Myanmar. Despite what appears to be a nascent democracy, a civil war between the government and an array of armed ethnic groups along the country’s periphery has flickered continuously since the 1950s. The reasons for the conflicts are many, though issues of ethnic autonomy and control of precious resources like jade and timber loom large.

The conflict’s latest iteration began in February 2015 and is still ongoing. A flare up of tensions between the Myanmar Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, Shan State, has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into China.

Many Rohingya have also left Burma in the past decades. Tens of thousands of them reside in ill-equipped refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, though others have escaped to new lives abroad. Their final destinations vary, but the majority resides in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Of these Rohingya living overseas, who may number over one million, most work low-wage jobs in the construction and service industries. There are some, however, that have chosen a different path in a land closer to home.

Abdullah's storefront in Jinghong

Abdullah’s storefront in Jinghong

Eight hundred kilometers east of Rakhine state in Jinghong, China, Abedullah owns a small jewelry shop. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon he hasn’t sold a thing.

Abedullah, like almost one million of his compatriots in Rakhine state, is a Rohingya, but he has not lived there in thirteen years. Instead, he’s settled in Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, along with almost 600 other Rohingya. All of them sell jade.

According to Abedullah, who only agreed to give his first name, Rohingya merchants first came to Jinghong almost forty years ago. Following the end of the bloody Bangladesh Independence War in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring Burma. Marginalized by the Burmese and eventually disavowed by the Bangladeshi government, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled overseas. A handful made it to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

Stories of Jinghong’s first Rohingya are hard to find and by all accounts, the number of émigrés remained small until the 1990s. It was then that the Chinese economy began to truly open up to the international market. As trade increased and more Chinese became wealthy, the country’s jewelry consumption level grew as well, skyrocketing over 4000% in a decade.

While all gemstones have grown in popularity in recent decades, none hold the place in Chinese culture that jade does. Regarded as a stone of mystical qualities since antiquity, jade is the king of gemstones in China and it is in Myanmar that the world’s highest quality jade is found.

As a result, jade shops are ubiquitous in dozens of towns along the China-Myanmar border. Jinghong is one of the largest. Straddling the Mekong River, this once sleepy town has grown into a city of six hundred-thousand and now hosts millions of tourists each year. Many of these tourists come looking to buy Burmese jade. As travelers have flocked to Jinghong in greater numbers in recent years, Rohingya merchants with connections to the Burmese jade trade have followed to keep up with demand.

A New Life

One of the recent arrivals is Xiao Fei, a 21 year-old who prefers his new Chinese nickname to his given name. Xiao Fei, like many other Rohingya in Jinghong, came at the behest of his family; his grandfather first arrived in the city almost thirty years ago. After saving enough money for a passport, Xiao Fei was able to leave his home in Yangon and help his grandfather set up the family’s second shop.

Xiao Fei had to save up for his passport because getting such a document is often impossible for many Rohingya in Myanmar. Since they are officially considered to be foreigners by the Burmese government, Rohingya can only obtain passports after paying expensive bribes to the right people. That is why, as Xiao Fei explains, “Only rich Rohingya can make it to China.”

Once in Jinghong, new arrivals find an environment altogether strange and inviting. The forest of newly-built apartment complexes and hotels certainly dwarfs anything found in Rakhine state, however the hundreds of established Rohingya businessmen form a tight community that provides everything from religious services to a lunchtime delivery service of halal Burmese cuisine.

It is the mosque that is the heart of the community, says Waynai, a trader living in Jinghong for six years. The Jinghong Mosque, located not far from the banks of the Mekong was first established decades ago by the city’s existing community of Hui, a distinct ethnic group of more than ten million people that practice Islam and speak Mandarin Chinese.

When the Rohingya began to move to Jinghong in greater numbers in the late 1990s, they became a part of the congregation, eventually joined by a small population of Uighurs from China’s northwest. Together, these three groups of Muslims manage the congregation. Despite disparate geographic and cultural backgrounds, the mosque is thriving with a healthy number of members, daily prayers held in Arabic and discussion groups where participants speak in Standard Mandarin.

The Jinghong Mosque

The Jinghong Mosque

However both Waynai and Abedullah agree more with the mosque’s Uighur members on theological questions. When asked whether or not he had any non-Rohingya friends from the congregation, Abedullah answers, “Yes, but not the Hui. They’re fake … they don’t have Allah in their hearts.” Instead, it is the Uighur community that he feels closer too. “[The Rohingya] are similar to the Uighurs because neither of us are free … we both have to struggle to survive.”

This struggle is why Ba Hlaing, a 31 year-old jade dealer, came to Jinghong eight years ago. At the time, his family lived comfortably in a suburb of Yangon but as he came of age, conditions for young Rohingya grew more difficult. “I would’ve liked to stay with my family, but there wasn’t anything to do, no money to make.”

“It’s because of [the government] that we’re so backwards now,” he says in a whirlwind of English, Mandarin and Jinghong dialect, slapping the table after each word.

Just then a Han Chinese couple enters Ba Hlaing’s shop. He greets them using his best Mandarin, standing, “Welcome to Ba Hlaing’s Jewelry! We have the finest jade from Myanmar! Would you like to look at a bracelet?”

After five minutes of browsing, the wife still has not decided on a piece and the husband, fidgeting, suggests heading back to their hotel. The couple leaves and Ba Hlaing sits down to light a cigarette. “That’s how it goes,” he sighs. Just like Abedullah, business is slow for Ba Hlaing, even during tourism’s high season.

Ba Hlaing believes the drop in jade sales is a consequence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on corruption. Once-popular ostentatious displays of wealth, like jade pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars are now frowned upon and officials that might frequent jade shops like Ba Hlaing’s are staying away.

Burmese jadeite

Burmese jadeite. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The jade, however, keeps flowing from Myanmar. Most of it is mined in a strip of remote jungle in Kachin State, in the country’s northeast.  Conditions in Myanmar’s jade mines are notoriously dangerous and the towns that spring up around them are known as much for their drugs and guns as they are for their jade. However bad mining conditions are though, the money can be worth it for those who can make it. Official figures from Myanmar’s government put jade exports at $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2014. Analysts from Harvard University’s Ash Center disagree, estimating jade sales – both official and off the books – at $8 billion for 2011 alone.

Once the raw jade has been extracted, it is sent to processing centers. The majority are located within Myanmar, in urban centers like Mandalay and Yangon, where the jade is polished and crafted into a final product. The next step is to get it into China, where the market is.

Most traders interviewed for this article admitted that the majority of the jade they sold was actually smuggled into Yunnan. A few well-placed bribes on both sides of the border can get shipments of jade, transported in trucks, into China reliably. Once the jade is in Yunnan, it usually makes its way to Ruili, a major border crossing between China and Myanmar.

According to Ba Hlaing, many Rohingya traders in Jinghong have a contact in Ruili, usually family, that buys the jade. Others, however, are directly connected to processing centers, most often in Yangon. For more valuable pieces, with sale prices upwards of $50,000, many traders will use air transport to ensure their safe arrival. While import taxes must be paid in these cases, the extra cost is often worth the peace of mind.

 A Tough Decision

Peace of mind, however, is getting harder to come by. With a slowdown in business and mounting issues back in Myanmar, many members of Jinghong’s Rohingya community are facing a tough decision whether or not to return home.

Ba Hlaing, for one, is planning on going back to Myanmar. Sales have decreased for the past two years and he fears that a protracted crackdown on corruption in China will keep jade sales low and prevent his shop in Jinghong from making a profit.

Despite the dire situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ba Hlaing is choosing to remain positive. “I think things will get better for us,” he says guardedly. “We have [this year’s parliamentary] election and the world paying attention to us so democracy is a good thing.”

Abedullah, on the other hand, does not share Ba Hlaing’s optimism. He does not want to return to Myanmar and sees little hope for democracy delivering the Rohingya from oppression.

“Things are a mess in Myanmar right now, everything is a mess,” he says. “The economy is bad and the government and [the armed ethnic groups] are still fighting.”

When asked his thoughts on the country’s armed conflicts, Abedullah pauses before exhaling heavily. “You know, we want to go to war too. At least [the armed ethnic groups] have guns. We don’t have anything,” he laments. “The government even took the knives from our houses … But then they still call us terrorists.”

Leave a Comment

Filed under China, ethnic policy, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Trade, Yunnan Province

Kunming party chief falls to corruption probe; held post for less than 8 months

ST_20150414_GAOJINSONG_1232589e

Former Kunming party secretary, Gao Jinsong

 

It’s official: there is no government posting more inauspicious than that of Kunming Communist Party Secretary.

On April 10, the Yunnan discipline inspection commission announced that current Kunming party chief Gao Jinsong (高劲松) is being investigated for “serious violations of party discipline and law,” official jargon for corruption. He had served as the Yunnan provincial capital’s party chief for less than eight months.

Gao, 51, is the third consecutive Kunming party chief to have fallen victim to President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. His predecessor, Zhang Tianxin (张田欣) was forced to step down in July 2014 and Qiu He (仇和), who held the post from 2011-2014 was investigated just last month.

Before assuming his post in Kunming, Gao Jinsong was the Communist Party secretary of Yunnan’s Qujing prefecture from 2012 to 2014. Along with Kunming party secretary, Gao was also party secretary of the city’s garrison command. He was not, however a member of Yunnan’s standing committee, the top level of party leadership in the province.

According to a report by Caixin, Gao’s investigation is linked to the case against Bai Enpei (白恩培). The former Yunnan provincial party secretary, Bai was investigated for corruption and in August 2014. Gao reportedly gave Bai Enpei millions of yuan in bribes. “Bai and his wife confessed … regarding the bribes they took, which implicated many officials currently in office,” Caixin cited an anonymous Yunnan official as saying.

Gao’s investigation marks a new direction for the current anti-corruption drive. When Gao was announced as the replacement for the disgraced Zhang Tianxin in August 2014, many locals thought him to be a safe choice. It was assumed that the central government had properly vetted him and that his term as party secretary would last longer than eight months. It’s obvious now that something went wrong.

It is certainly possible that Gao’s investigation is directly related to the Bai Enpei case. However, the investigations and court proceedings in official corruption cases are done behind closed doors, the details of which are only released through state-run media.

Indeed, it would make sense that Gao Jinsong had corrupt dealings with Bai Enpei. Bai, who was the provincial secretary from 2001 to 2011, was a kingmaker of Yunnan’s party leadership and Gao’s political rise coincided with Bai’s tenure.

Regardless of the exact details of Gao’s case, what is becoming clearer with each disgraced official is that the central government is displeased with Yunnan. It is a troubling new face of the province’s relationship with Beijing.

In the early 2000’s provincial leaders took pride in their appointment to serve as China’s chief representatives for carrying out the country’s economic policies and cooperation initiatives with neighboring Southeast Asia.  Now the Yunnan provincial leadership’s role is tarnished and uncertain.

In an action plan for China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative revealed last month at the Bo’ao Forum, Yunnan province was not listed as a key province despite its geographic significance in the current and future development of the South Silk Road.  Furthermore, the future of Luosiwan International Trade City, which acts as a logistics hub for all Chinese goods travelling overland into Southeast Asia, is surrounded by uncertainty after its owner, Liu Weigao, was arrested for corruption earlier this year.

In the past thirteen months, the entire Communist Party leadership of Yunnan has fallen one by one to charges of corruption. That the man chosen to replace one of these fallen leaders has now been investigated himself for graft only reinforces the notion that something is wrong in Yunnan’s politics. Is it that the profits from province’s tin and copper mines are too tempting for these top officials? Is it their connections to the disgraced security czar Zhou Yongkang and his Sichuan-based clique? Or is it something else?

Whatever the reason, Yunnan’s relationship with the center is clearly troubled with no solution in sight. Those next in line for the province’s party leadership will be desperate to find one; their role in China’s development in Southeast Asia depends on it.

2 Comments

Filed under China, Governance, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

In Anti-Corruption Campaign, Top Yunnan Officials Pay Steep Price for Graft, Political Relationships

During dynastic times, Yunnan was known as a place where disgraced mandarins were sent to live out their days and where the local officials maintained a large degree of independence from the capital. As the saying goes, “the heavens are high and the emperor is far away.” However, as new highways and railroads have linked Yunnan to the rest of China over the past century, Beijing is not as distant as it used to be, and the days of the province’s freewheeling officials seem to be at an end. If that were ever in doubt, a recent string of high profile corruption cases have confirmed Beijing’s grip on its representatives in the land south of the clouds.

President Xi Jinping

Since President Xi Jinping took office more than a year ago, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has undertaken the herculean task of ridding itself of graft, collusion and anything that would diminish the public’s already low level of trust in its leaders. By going after both high-ranking party leaders and petty bureaucrats, or ‘swatting flies and hunting tigers’ (拍苍蝇,打老虎) in the modern parlance, the current anti-corruption drive has yielded impressive results.

To date, over 50 high level party members have been arrested, 182000 government officials punished, and as of July 2014, 6,000 officials have been placed under investigation this year. Among the ‘tigers’ caught in the campaign are former mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, former Minster of Railways, Liu Zhijun, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee under Hu Jintao.

Thousands of officials from every region have been swept up in the campaign and Yunnan Province has indeed seen its fair share, with hundreds of local public servants investigated since the 18th Party Congress almost two years ago. However, in recent months, a number of high profile officials in the province have found themselves in the cross hairs of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Shen Peiping

Shen Peiping, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province

The first major official to fall was Shen Peiping, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province. Shen, a native of Baoshan, Yunnan, worked in various government posts before becoming Mayor of Pu’er City in 2007. Dubbed ‘Mayor of Tea’, Shen gained fame in promoting the local Pu’er tea to the rest of China and the world, leading to quick economic development of the region. However, Shen was also known locally for his heavy-handed tactics in dealing with petitioners and shady relationships with local businessmen.
After spending a little over a year as the vice-governor, Shen was officially investigated in March of this year and in August, he was charged with using his post for personal benefit, accepting large bribes and committing adultery. Traditionally, intra-Party disciplinary investigations almost always lead to a court case, where the conviction rate is above 99%. Therefore, few expect Shen to recover from these accusations.

It was not long after Shen Peiping’s investigation began that Kong Chuizhu, a personal friend, began his demise, albeit under much more scandalous circumstances. The provincial vice-governor from 2003 to 2013, Kong was known to share mistresses with Shen Peiping and the two would often frequent high-end brothels together. For Kong, the consequences were grave.

Kong Chuizhu

Kong Chuizhu, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province

Following the announcement that Shen was being investigated in early March, Kong, in Beijing attending meetings at the time, attempted suicide in his hotel room. The attempt, however, was unsuccessful and Kong was admitted into a Beijing hospital for recovery. Following medical tests, he was found to be HIV positive. The central government immediately opened an investigation on Kong and ordered him back to Yunnan to lay low while undergoing treatment. Two months later, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide for a second time and was admitted into the Provincial Armed Police Hospital. Finally, Kong jumped to his death from his hospital window on July 12.

Days after Kong Chuizhu’s death, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced it was investigating Zhang Tianxin, former Party Secretary of Kunming. Zhang’s Party membership and posts were immediately revoked as a result of the investigation.
Zhang, the CPC Party Chief of Yunnan’s Wenshan Prefecture from 1999 to 2006, was apparently involved in corrupt practices in the prefecture’s mining industry. In addition, it is significant to note that Zhang was taken down just two weeks after an exposé aired on CCTV revealing plans for a number of illegal housing developments on the shores of the famously polluted Lake Dianchi, plans that Zhang reportedly approved.

That Zhang Tianxin was investigated is not surprising to many Yunnanese.  According to one local government employee who wished to remain anonymous, “Everyone knew Zhang Tianxin and (former Yunnan Provincial Party Secretary) Bai Enpei were corrupt. Once (the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) started looking at Yunnan, they were done.”

Zhang Tianxin, former Party Secretary of Kunming

Indeed, Bai Enpei did not have much time left. On August 29, it was reported that an investigation was being opened on him and that he was suspected of “serious discipline and law violations,” Party jargon for ‘corruption’.

Bai, Provincial Party Secretary from 2001 to 2011, oversaw a period of rapid growth for the province. He was a vocal supporter of hydropower development and campaigned intensely in favor of damming western Yunnan’s Nu River, also known as the Salween. Following 10 years as the CPC’s top man in Yunnan, Bai assumed the post of deputy secretary for the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee.

His tenure there, however, was cut short. According to a report from YiCai, the former vice-secretary for the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Yunnan, Yang Weijun submitted to Beijing an official complaint regarding Bai’s corruption in mid-August in which he detailed Bai Enpei’s extensive dealings in selling off mining contracts in the province.

In the most grievous case, Bai sold sixty percent ownership of China’s largest zinc and tin mine for a mere one billion yuan, despite the mine having an estimated value of fifty billion yuan. The shares were sold to a relative of Liu Han, a Sichuanese mining tycoon and close friend of Zhou Yongkang. Mr. Liu was sentenced to death earlier this year for murder, among other charges.

A map of Bai Enpei's relationships with other corrupt officials. An asterisk next to the name indicates that official has been investigated. (Infographic originally produced by Sohu.com August 2014)

A map of Bai Enpei’s relationships with other corrupt officials. Click to enlarge. (Infographic originally produced by Sohu.com August 2014)

As the above infographic shows, Bai Enpei was at the center of corruption among Yunnan’s political elite and closely tied with Zhou Yongkang and Liu Han. What’s more, when Bai was the party secretary of Qinghai from 1997 to 2001, he had dealings with Jiang Jiemin, a former executive of the notoriously corrupt Sinopec who is currently under investigation for embezzlement of state funds. Many of Bai’s former colleagues from his days in Qinghai have also met the same fate as him and currently face investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Bai Enpei, former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province

Bai Enpei, former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province

The dominoes did not stop falling with Bai Enpei, however. In mid-October 2014, state media announced that Yunnan Party Secretary Qin Guangrong had been relieved of his duties and would be replaced by sitting governor, Li Jiheng. Qin will now assume the post of vice-secretary of the State Organs Work Committee. However, local Kunmingers interviewed see the job transfer as more of a demotion with possible serious consequences. “(Qin’s) new position is meaningless, he has no power there. The central government just put him there until he’s formally charged… and that should be coming soon,” Yang Mouren, a local teacher, claimed. He may be right. While Qin was well-liked by many locals, he had close ties to a number of disgraced officials and it is probable that like his colleagues, Qin also had his hands in corrupt resource deals. However, unless he is formally investigated, details regarding any corruption Qin took part in will not be publicly released.

Qin Guangrong (R) with his replacement as Yunnan Party Secretary, Li Jiheng (L)

Qin Guangrong (R) with his replacement as Yunnan Party Secretary, Li Jiheng (L)

With so many high officials, and hundreds of local bureaucrats, investigated, it’s clear that the central government has its sights on Yunnan’s corrupt officialdom. But, with countless other corrupt officials scattered across China, many locals are asking ‘Why Yunnan?’ The reasons are twofold.

The first has to do with Yunnan’s natural resources. Of the two provinces that have so far been cleaned out by Beijing, Yunnan and Shanxi, one important commonality is their abundance of resources. With such wealth in natural resources come opportunities for massive corruption. In the case of Shanxi, its army of ostentatiously wealthy coal bosses were known nationwide, as were their close relationships with their political patrons. At the same time, Yunnan’s reserves of aluminum, lead, zinc and tin are the largest in China and it’s clear from the cases of Bai Enpei and Zhang Tianxin that provincial power brokers were heavily involved in the illegal distribution of these resources.

Also significant is the fact that all of the high officials mentioned in this article have ties to the disgraced Zhou Yongkang and his mining tycoon friend, Liu Han. With his power base in Sichuan, Zhou’s influence on officials in neighboring provinces, including Yunnan, was deep. Shen Peiping, Bai Enpei and Qin Guangrong especially were known to belong to the same political clique that formed under Zhou Yongkang. Shen and Qin were heavily rumored to engage in business with Zhou’s family members worth tens of millions of renminbi, while Bai Enpei sold off control of a western Yunnan mine to Liu Han’s family at a cut rate. In addition, Bai and Qin were Zhou Yongkang’s unofficial hosts when he visited the province in 2007, and Bai accompanied the Politburo Standing Committee member on his 2011 trip to Laos, all implying very close relations. For their part, Kong Chuizhu and Zhang Tianxin were intimately connected to Bai Enpei and as his power grew in the province, so did theirs. As is often the case within Chinese bureaucracy, underlings rise and fall with their leaders. Bai Enpei, and those who came up with him, were intimately connected to Zhou Yongkang; they are now paying the price for their political associations.

Former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang

Former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has rocked the national bureaucracy, clearing out the upper echelon of Yunnan politicians in the process. It isn’t just top officials that have felt the squeeze however; there have been noticeable effects for local bureaucrats as well. According to one university administrator who wished to remain anonymous, his college’s office environment has changed in the past year. As he explained, “Before, you just had to show up, sit in your office, drink tea and chat with the other teachers from time to time. Now, a lot of people are very nervous at the school because we’re known to be pretty corrupt.” However, the corruption crackdown has led to some unexpected opportunities. “I actually have more freedom with my job now. Because all of the higher officials are so worried about their own jobs, I can consult for other companies on the side, and they’re too busy to notice. Plus, I wasn’t too corrupt to begin with so I’m not worried.”

The changes may not be over yet, however. When asked about corruption in Yunnan, locals still doubt the effect of the current campaign. “In Yunnan, nine out of ten officials are corrupt,’’ Mr. Yang, the school teacher, claims “and it’s the same everywhere else in the country. The story isn’t over yet.”

4 Comments

Filed under China, Current Events, Governance, SLIDER, Yunnan Province