Chengdu Ex-Mayor Faces Corruption Charges

With the installment of a new leadership in Beijing comes the requisite crackdown on corruption across the country. The highest-level victim of this crackdown so far is the once-grand overlord of Chengdu and the second most powerful man in Sichuan, Li Chuncheng.

It’s been almost a week since news broke that Li Chuncheng, deputy secretary of the Sichuan Communist Party and recently elected alternate to the powerful Central Committee, has been taken away for investigation into alleged violations of Party discipline. For much of the country, this is just another high-level official getting carted away for wrongdoing. But for Chengdu and Sichuan, this is the beheading of one of the most powerful men in the region.

“Who was it that took out this powerful man,” asked @何三畏 on China’s Sina Weibo micro-blogging service. “Who could have removed one of Sichuan’s most important leaders without even a peep?”

Although a few people are dazed at how quickly such a seemingly untouchable person could be removed from office, most Chengdunese have taken to Weibo to cackle at the downfall of a man they knew as “Li Tear Down the City” for all of the construction projects he pushed through during his tenure as vice-mayor and then mayor of Chengdu.

“The greatest thing he ever did was destroy what was left of our cultural heritage,” wrote @可以可以3. “Death to Li Tear Down the City!”

For a man as powerful as Li Chuncheng – he ran media, real estate, and investment arms through his office, and is accused of selling dozens of official posts – there is no single indictment to cover all the things he may have had a hand in. A few recent reports focus on his relationship with Dai Xiaomin, head of the Chengdu Industrial Investment Group, who was pulled in for investigation on September 11 of this year.  Dai reportedly squealed on more than 40 people involved in corruption, including bribing officials, illegal purchase of land, smuggling and other crimes. Li Chuncheng is rumored to be the  most powerful name among them all.

Although Dai and Li have a close relationship – Dai was often referred to in political circles as Li’s right-hand man – it is unclear whether or not Dai’s investigation is the sole reason for the investigations into Li. According to one source, a Chengdu police commissioner named Shen Yong, the investigations into Li started more than a decade ago, during the 16th Party Congress.

On his Weibo account @人民警察申勇, Shen Yong describes in great detail investigations into Li Chuncheng that began after his meteoric rise from deputy secretary of the Communist Youth League of China in Harbin to the vice-mayor of Chengdu in just 13 years. Although that might seem like a substantial amount of time, most officials spend their whole lives hovering between levels of government – few rise from such a lowly position so fast without a powerful benefactor.

And Li may have had a very powerful and notorious benefactor in the person of Han Gui Zhi, who was the Heilongjiang Party deputy secretary and chairwoman during the late 1990s up until 2004. Han was accused of accepting millions in bribes in 2005, and was sentenced to death with two years reprieve. During the period in which Han was accused of selling Party posts, Li Chuncheng rose from the secretary of the Heilongjiang Communist Youth League to vice-mayor of Harbin in 1998.

Shen writes that he was also a member of the politics and judiciary committee in Sichuan in 2003 and was privy to evidence of corruption that pointed to the very top of Sichuanese officialdom. He goes on to say that Li Chuncheng’s status as an alternate to the 16th Party Congress was stripped and he was prevented from becoming an alternate during the 17th Congress. When Li then went on to become deputy Party Secretary for Sichuan Province and an alternate for 18th Congress which ended last month, authorities made their move, according to Shen.

“Despite censure after the 16th Congress, Li rose to a top position in Chengdu,” writes Shen. “How much money did he spend on that rise and who accepted the money?”

Li Chuncheng’s wife visiting post-quake Sichuan

Although Shen Yong’s accusations and revelations cannot be confirmed, he does write in great detail about Li’s wife, Qu Song Zhi, who also rose from a lowly position – head of housecleaning at the Sichuan Renmin Hospital – to be vice-chairwoman and secretary of the Chengdu Red Cross. She gained this last position several months after the Wenchuan Earthquake, when billions of RMB in donations were surging into the Red Cross.

“Through various machinations, Li and his wife forced the then chairman to resign,” wrote Shen. “It was then that the Chengdu Red Cross became hopelessly corrupt.”

A search through old records and news reports show that Qu was indeed the vice-chairwoman of the Chengdu Red Cross in December of 2009. A more recent list shows that she held the position in August of 2011, but there are of yet no clear indications that Qu’s position with the Chengdu Red Cross was anything more than a bit of nepotism on Li’s part – he was the Party Secretary of Chengdu at the time of the earthquake.

Borui Broadcasting

Another interesting thread in the case of Li Chun Cheng’s investigation is the sudden collapse of Borui Broadcasting’s stock price. Borui Broadcasting began its explosive rise to the top of the media world in the late 1990s as the advertising arm of the Chengdu Economic Daily, Chengdu’s most successful daily newspaper. When Li Chuncheng became vice-mayor of Chengdu, he helped Borui and the Chengdu Economic Daily consolidate the broadcasting, television, and print media outlets in Chengdu into the Chengdu Broadcasting Group, at the time the first group in the entire nation to combine all of these media elements under one roof.

Borui’s stock price has plummeted

The group was taken public by Borui Broadcasting, an umbrella company that quickly moved into real estate, investment, and wealth management. Borui was known as one of the biggest media company in the country and a sure bet for investors, but on the morning of December 4th, just as Li Chuncheng’s investigation was hitting the airwaves, Borui’s stock price hit rock bottom.

A Caijing article, 博瑞传播蹊跷跌停,  describes the sudden drop on the 4th as suspicious and posits a link between Borui’s stock plummeting and recent investigations into corruption of top Sichuanese officials. @腾细浪, commenting on Weibo, wrote that big shareholders had been selling off their Borui stock for at least a month, so “the fact that the stock hit rock bottom is no surprise”.

Li Chuncheng, his family, and his associates were definitely involved in big-name companies and organizations. Through his connections to Dai Xiaoming and Borui, Li may have had his hands in the media and in land acquisitions; and there is the possibility that his wife may have exerted special influence over the billions in donations that flowed through Chengdu and Sichuan after the Wenchuan Earthquake. Also, Li’s relationship with the disgraced Han Gui Zhi points to a history of buying and selling government positions – indeed, Chengdu has gained a reputation nationwide as having a particularly lively auction house for official placements.

Li the Wrecking Ball

What’s clear enough is Li Chuncheng role in one of the nation’s largest building booms as vice-mayor and later mayor of Chengdu. Chengdu is one of the fastest growing cities in the world today and much of that growth was fueled by – and has led to even further – infrastructure development. Locals give Li Chuncheng the dubious distinction of having torn down the last of the city’s historical buildings and replacing them with highways, overpasses, megamalls, and massive, empty theme parks. That distinction comes with a nickname, Li Chaicheng, a play on the politician’s name which means “Li Tear Down the City” – Li Chuncheng, his real name, means Li Spring City.

The huge developments in the south of the city – the Tianfu Hi-tech Zone and the government moving their office buildings to Huayang – all began or were enlarged during Li’s tenure at the helm of the city’s government. One of his more infamous developments in the south of the city was the “Little Bird’s Nest,” a copy of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing built just after the earthquake to house the Chengdu municipal government. When Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu to tour the quake-affected areas, he was said to be so angry at the ostentatious display by the Chengdu government that he stayed but a few minutes before leaving.

Li Chuncheng got the message and quickly auctioned the buildings off to the highest (private) bidder. Most of the Little Bird’s Nest stands empty today; locals claim derisively that Li solved the problem by turning the buildings into cash.

Chuncheng awaits an uncertain fate

Although netizens are voicing their opinions on Weibo and, when asked, on the street as well, the complete silence among the powerful Chengdu-based media point to, at the very least, surprise that such a powerful figure could be taken down. Also, articles such as this slightly schizophrenic, article in the People’s Daily Online hint at confusion among the larger media outlets as to what kind of tone to take concerning this recent crackdown. The People’s Daily Online story begins with a paragraph on the investigations in Li, but quickly shifts to praising the ex-mayor of Chengdu for his efforts during the Wenchuan Earthquake and also his work transforming Chengdu into one of China’s most economically dynamic cities.

But locals in Chengdu do not seem the slightest bit surprised that Li Chuncheng is now under investigation. Li was Chengdu’s overlord for years and locals assume that anyone with that much power will enrich themselves to the fullest possible extent. Based on a look through Weibo and conversations with people on the street, the surprise is not that Li Chuncheng has taken a fall, but that he has so far taken no one big down with him.

“I remember that getting a hold of Li Chuncheng’s driver was enough to get problems solved back in the day,” said one woman who refused to be named for this article. “I never liked him or his associates because they flaunted their power in front of us freely.”

“But I never thought that he could disappear, just like that.”

 

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

18 Responses to “Chengdu Ex-Mayor Faces Corruption Charges”

  1. I visited Chengdu in 2008 and walked around a very old neighbourhood. A woman in there told us that it was 200 years old and soon to be destroyed. Now it’s a five star hotel (possibly The Shangri La?). This is what Li is responsible for I guess.

    Looks like this new govt is on a bit of witch hunt – good news.

    • Yes, there are quite a few neighborhoods in Chengdu that have undergone that transition in recent years. I used to live in one, not far from the Chunxi Lu shopping district in Chengdu.

      All of the buildings were very old and the neighborhood was populated by small tea shops featuring Sichuan opera that charged 1 yuan, mahjong parlors, massage shops, small produce markets, etc.

      When I lived there people spoke about how soon this area and everything around it would cease to exist, and these were almost always elderly Chinese people who who didn’t want to see their small piece of Chengdu go away. This was years ago, but I was near there recently and there is a gigantic shopping mall in its place that looked new and empty.

  2. Ray

    the corruption in this land is so cancerous, so entrenched, so all-encompassing, so soul-destroying, so rampant….so tolerated

    • You’re right. Hopefully notoriously corrupt politicians taking well-publicized falls like this will make other politicians fear the repercussions of betraying citizens.

  3. Corruption is so endemic at all levels of Chinese government that whenever an official is purged it begs the question of what he or she did to deserve that punishment. Did they cross some imaginary threshold of corruption that is only know to government officials? Does there exist some sort of official corruption scale for Communist Party members?

    My own conclusion is that there isn’t a really such a scale, but rather when there is a change in leadership, the new guys in charge desire to make a bold display of authority by making the previous guys look bad. This seems to be a Chinese Communist tradition started by the Chairman himself. Bo Xilai did the same when he arrived in Chongqing, but now we all know the great irony of how that story panned out.

    Li Chuncheng may or may not be more corrupt than other government officials of his rank, but giving him the boot for mismanaging the development and urbanization of Chengdu strikes me as a fabricated excuse. This is what officials across China are encouraged to do by the Central Government and he was just following orders.

    Regarding the “mini Bird’s Nest” in the South Hi-Tech Zone, reprimanding the Chengdu government for this project was an attempt by Premier Wen to transfer blame for earthquake damage and loss of life onto local officials (another Chinese government tradition: put the blame on the lower ranks when something bad happens).

    Granted,there was plenty of blame to go around locally in Sichuan after the Wenchuan Earthquake, but if one of the top leaders is going to go after Chengdu for one vanity project, then he needs to go after every single other city in the country which also wastes money on vanity projects (i.e. pretty much every single city and town in China).

    When corruption is this entrenched, selecting at random a few guys out of the pack to take the fall doesn’t help ‘weed out corruption’ but rather reinforces the culture of opacity and misinformation by keeping everyone in suspended terror.

    • This is a great analysis Adam, it is all about suspended terror and scrambling to avoid the falling rocks by placing someone else in the way …

  4. Ray

    @Adam: very well-said man. In a perverse kinda way i feel sorry for the guys like him who are scape-goated. he’s just doing what is so pervasive in his field. having said that, if this cat is responsible for the redevelopment of Kuanzaixiangzi, all my sympathy dries up. that shit is a crime against humanity (or good taste anyway)…

  5. He is indeed a scapegoat and nothing more. It’s too bad, in some ways, that he has to be the one to go down, because there are good people who depend on him for survival.

    I had a dream once about a line of men crossing a bridge, patrolled by ogres, and every once in a while one of the ogres would smash a man into the walls of the bridge with a massive club. But they kept marching because the alternative was jumping off of the bridge. I think the system here is like that bridge, Li Chuncheng was just unlucky enough to be the one hit with the club.

  6. Good job Sascha! I have been wondering about the responses from Chengdu media. Looks like they have been gagged. It’s a shame for Chengdu people who have to live with the consequences of his selfish campaigns and projects. And now we have to deal with someone even more selfish and stupid.

  7. thank Amy. I think the link to the Chengdu Media Group has the local outlets running scared ….

    btw here is Amy’s post on the topic for SCMP:

    http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1103692/what-has-li-chuncheng-demolisher-done-chengdu

    You should link to us girl, you know I scooped you all right?? ;)

  8. Of course this case is just one of hundreds across the country. Every district has it’s own chief and his team of lackeys who all want their own shopping mall, five star hotel, subway station, sports stadium – things they can all cash in on.

    It’s sickening.

    I live in a downtown area of Shanghai and all around me are building sites of tower blocks nearly completed or about to be started. At this stage in the game – and at Shanghai costs – most of these will be bought be speculators.

    This entire thing will come crashing down soon. It’s not a case of ‘if’. And when it does then things could get pretty ugly in China.

  9. Here is the next part of this story, in Caixin:

    “A land auction is at the center of an investigation focusing on a former Chengdu mayor, Li Chuncheng. The Communist Party’s anti-graft watchdog is probing Li, who was ousted as the Sichuan Province deputy party chief and removed from party ranks.”

    http://english.caixin.com/2012-12-17/100473379.html

    I can’t believe that this is it though …

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