Chinese documentary sparks rare criticism of Xi’s corruption crackdown

A state-sponsored documentary series designed to bolster support for China’s decade-long corruption crackdown has instead sparked a rare outburst of public criticism of one of the president’s most important policies. Xi Jinping.

Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign in 2013 in response to rampant and systematic corruption that was undermining the Communist Party’s grip on power.

The effort led to the detention of tens of thousands of officials, including top national leaders such as Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief, and Ling Jihua, one of the former president’s top aides. Hu Jintao.

The crackdown has also been interpreted as part of Xi’s plans to root out his political rivals.

China Central Television, a public broadcaster, began broadcasting this month Zero tolerance, a five-part series featuring rich details on abuses of power and explosive interviews with convicted Chinese Communist Party officials.

On the eve of the first episode, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s main anti-corruption body, said Zero tolerance was intended to reflect “relentless efforts” to advance the fight against corruption and “systematically achieve the strategic objective of making public officials unable and willing to become corrupt”.

Previous anti-corruption documentaries have focused on the amount of funds stolen by officials. But none have gone as far as Zero tolerance revealing how corrupt activities have occurred and sometimes continued despite ongoing investigations.

In one case, private companies were alleged to have made “unreasonably high payments” to the brother of Zhou Jiangyong, the former party secretary in Hangzhou, an eastern city that is home to Jack Ma’s Ant Group, the company fintech.

The program implicated Ant in the corruption scandal, alleging the payments were made in exchange for political support and cheap land. The company was not named, but an Ant unit was the only outside corporate investor in one of the companies, according to public records, and was among three corporate investors in another.

Zhou was arrested and the CCDI said he was expelled from the Communist Party this week for “disorderly expansion of capital”.

The Financial Times could not reach the Zhou brothers for comment.

Ant did not respond to a request for comment.

But Chinese social media has been flooded with dismissive criticism and criticism that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has failed to achieve its goal.

“The cost of committing crimes is too low and the attraction too high,” said a user on Weibo, the microblogging platform.

“[Sun Lijun] smiled as he described his crime,” read another popular post, referring to the former deputy public security minister arrested two years ago on corruption charges. “Did he regret what he did?

Chen Gang, former vice mayor of Beijing, continued to take bribes despite knowing he was under investigation ©Imagine China/Reuters

China has a tradition of forcing allegedly corrupt officials to confess to their crimes live on TV, but Zero tolerance led many viewers to instead view the political system as the root cause of the problem.

Chen Gang, the former vice mayor of Beijing, was shown on the program brazenly accepting bribes for several years in the mid-2010s as he was aware of investigations into his activities. Last year he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Chen’s story, many viewers said, reflected the party’s failure. “There was a systemic tolerance for his wrongdoing until someone higher up decided he needed to be punished,” said John Sun, a Beijing-based journalist.

Shaomin Li, a China scholar at Old Dominion University in Virginia, says Zero tolerance highlighted the contradictions of the Chinese political system. “The show tells officials to trust the party, not personal relationships. But the fact that Xi Jinping promotes people who have close ties with him or show personal loyalty to him tells them otherwise,” he said.

The execution in January last year of Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of the state-controlled financial group Huarong, on corruption charges shocked Chinese bureaucrats, but the general trend is that civil servants serving life sentences or suspended death sentence be released within 20 years.

Many Chinese were also outraged by the punishment meted out to corrupt officials featured in the documentary, which they said undermined the claim of zero tolerance.

The program detailed charges against Zhao Yonglian, a former head of the poverty alleviation bureau in northwest Yongdeng County, who was shown extracting bribes from more than a dozen applicants of state subsidies – among the poorest in the country – before being sentenced in 2019 to 42 months in prison.

The penalty, many viewers said, was too low. “The anti-corruption law is too lenient, corrupt officials are not afraid of it,” said one Weibo user.

Others saw the interviewees in Zero tolerance as indifferent. The convicted former officials in the documentary give eloquent speeches and recall their past experiences.

“They don’t look like criminals, they look like losers in a business battle,” said Shanghai-based software engineer David Yao.

Analysts said the negative reaction to Zero tolerance suggests the decade-long campaign has failed to seal public confidence in the party’s ability to investigate itself for corruption, which remains widespread.

“Despite our zero-tolerance policy towards corruption, the problem is still widespread,” said He Jiahong, a law professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

Analysts added that the series also highlighted China’s lack of checks and balances, due to its lack of an independent media and legal system.

“Getting caught does not mean you are more corrupt than others,” said a former official of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the highest government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal cases. “It just means you’re out of luck.”

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul

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