Targeting Northeastern Tigers: Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign in Liaoning

By | February 06, 2017 | No Comments

Sun Youwei (孙佑伟), Vice-director of the Bureau of Inspection and Quarantine in Donggang, Liaoning, expresses his support for anti-corruption efforts in autumn 2016. | Image: Dandong City Government.

North Korea’s multitude of special economic zones (SEZ) tend to attract an enormous degree of media and scholarly attention, even though very little is actually happening on the North Korean side of the frontier. One possible exception is the SEZ at Rason, which Sino-NK analyst Théo Clément gave the in-depth Tumen Triangle Documentation Project treatment back in December 2016.

Conversely, on the Chinese side of the border there is action and intrigue in abundance. Sino-NK continues to cover the Yalu river frontier as closely as anyone (see previous posts here, herehere, here, and a brand new “Border Bites” report covering the length of the bilateral border here). And yet, amid this work, substantive questions of CCP internal politics and how they impact upon border provinces have eluded us. Previewing an upcoming lecture in Leiden, where Christopher Green has put together an exciting six-part border studies lecture series, Adam Cathcart brings us that overdue analysis. The focus is on Liaoning. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.

Targeting Northeastern Tigers: Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign in Liaoning

by Adam Cathcart

In assessing the depth and the impact of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, few provinces are as interesting as Liaoning (遼寧). The reason for this curiosity comes in part because Liaoning, quite simply, is the buckle on the northeastern “rust belt,” having once been the beating industrial heart and the molten steel veins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) modernization project. Today, extensive corruption has come to light there amid industrial restructuring, a downturn in the coal industry, uniquely negative economic numbers, and a huge election-fraud scandal exposed last September.

As the CCP pushes for “a new overarching Chinese anti-corruption super agency,” efforts and challenges at the provincial and local level — particularly in areas bordering foreign countries — are more important than ever. Peripheral provinces and border regions help us to recognize the intense interplay between, and even contradictions within, Xi’s various propaganda themes and policies. For example, the huge amount of money sloshing into projects associated with “One Belt, One Road” can just as easily be diverted into the coffers of corrupt actors in neighbouring states and the mainland provinces that border them.

Like the expulsion and investigation of Liaoning former Party Secretary Wang Min (王珉) that preceded it, the fallout from the vote-buying fiasco of September 2016 in Liaoning has yet to be fully clarified. In Fushun, the depressed and occasionally sinking coal city where Wang Lijun once waxed rhapsodic about his muscular dispatch of gangsters, heads of the coal industry were investigated and a new Discipline Inspection Commission set up. The Liaoning scandal reached as far as the top echelons of Shanghai’s impressive higher education sector, where Fudan University Party Secretary Wei Xiaopeng (魏小鹏) was brought down in the investigation.

Wider still was the impact near the North Korean border, in China’s key trade hub with the DPRK. In Dandong, a number of officials have been shuffled since investigation of the vote-buying scandal ensnared Ma Xiaohong (马晓红), the young CEO of the Hongxiang firm, for allegedly selling North Korea materials that could be used in its nuclear and missile programs. On January 7, the PRC Foreign Ministry said that the investigation of Ms. Ma was “ongoing,” indicating that there may yet be room for her to manoeuvre, and possibly cash in her share of the company. Yet in this seemingly rare intersection of UN sanctions enforcement with the anti-corruption campaign, Xi Jinping may have found a formula for investigation of more local officials in the border region.

A mock-up of Dandong Xinchengqu (“New City District”), much of which has already been built. As is often the case with massive development projects, there will have been no shortage of skimming and embezzlement along the way. | Image: Sino-NK

The new Party Secretary of the Dandong municipal committee, Liu Xingwei (刘兴伟) has a difficult task ahead. He takes the path of most other officials by mimicking Xi Jinping’s numbing rhetoric of anti-corruption, but adds yet more edge in local implementation. Speaking on November 9 last year to the city’s Discipline Inspection Commission, Liu said there was “no room for ambiguity” and noted the need to internalize new disciplinary procedures so as to “repair Dandong’s political ecology.” In an environment relatively swimming in cash, North Korean laborers, Pyongyang elites, foreign journalists, alleged spies and “extralegal detention centers,” Liu will need to tread carefully as he implements directives from the center, and be skilled at operating in the “new normal” of what appears to be a permanent campaign.

One person who has decidedly not been successful in doing so is the aptly-named Liu Bianjiang (刘边疆; literally ‘Liu on the Frontier’), who had no sooner marked his two-year anniversary as the Political Commissar of the PLA in the Liaoning Military District than he was informed that as a military member of the Provincial Standing Committee, his services in that capacity would no longer be needed. This was a new national rule to which Liaoning was merely not an exception, but Liu was flagged up as a loser in the reshuffle. State security academic Xu Yaotong (许耀桐) told the Huanqiu Shibao that military members’ abrupt exclusion from Provincial Standing Committees would be “beneficial for them concentrating their energies on building the military.”

One of the controversial TELs that North Korea imported from China and then put on display in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. | Image: Tony Henshall

In the borderland, the removal of the PLA is consequential, but rather less dramatic than in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the Army has traditionally held a preponderant sway on the Party Committee structure. This dates back to the days of Zhang Guohua’s appointment in the 1950s, meaning that People’s Liberation Army chairmanship of the Party Committee in Tibet actually predates the establishment of the TAR itself by over a decade. In the case of Liaoning, the interplay between PLA border security and anti-corruption activity might again converge in the unlikely event that Xi wanted to offer up a gift to Donald Trump by outing whoever allowed “eight chassis from the China Aerospace and Industry Corporation” to be exported to North Korea.

Largely left out of the discussion of high-level political gambits and the international aspects of the anti-corruption campaign are citizens of Liaoning’s many villages and smaller-tier cities. In a rural area near Anshan, an unethical coverup by local officials of more than 30 deaths in a 2012 typhoon only recently came to light. Urban residents have the same craving for clean air as their counterparts south of Shanhaiguan, but compounded by lingering anger at deindustrialization and kleptocratic factory heads who evacuated the province during the Zhu Rongji years.

One can find evidence of discontent amid the newest buildings, like the large real-estate development I recently saw in an old Manchu suburb near Liaoyang where residents were upset having been unfairly compensated by the developer — a common story, but one where city planners, police, and Party officials seem to regularly tread upon local rights, and the type of small-scale corruption that has largely gone under the radar in the current campaign.

We are told there will be ‘zero tolerance’ for vote-buying as the autumn Party Congress approaches, and the ongoing fallout from the recent Liaoning scandal is held up as evidence that wrongdoing will be brought forward. Yet a closer look at the breadth of the province indicates that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign needs to be about more than managing elite politics. It also has to be balanced against China’s international relations and local tensions.