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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”