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 @??? 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 @????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 @??????, 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?”
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.
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.
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, ????????, 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. @???, 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.
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.”