Tea Leaf Nation

Just How Corrupt Are These People?

Deciphering the Chinese Communist Party's code for official misconduct.

BEIJING -- If the prominence of a social phenomenon can be gauged in part by the variety of terms used to describe it -- like the (apocryphal) notion that Eskimos employ an unusual plentitude of words for snow -- then Chinese officials' engagement in illicit sexual relations is pervasive indeed. Over the years, China's ruling Communist Party has drawn on a number of phrases to describe the libidinous habits of its wayward officials, including daode baihuai, or "moral corruption," yanzhong daode baihuai, or "serious moral corruption," shenghuo fuhua, or "degenerate lifestyle," and shenghuo milan, or "dissipated lifestyle." Since party disciplinary actions against senior cadres often have far-reaching political consequences or signal internal power struggles, enterprising outsider observers have tried to crack this code-speak.

While there is a common understanding among most Chinese that all of these accusations allude to what the party sees as "improper sexual relationships," any distinction beyond that blurs. Rarely if ever are details of such illicit relationships formally released or confirmed, leaving it to the rumor mills to fill in the blank on what an official might have done to deserve being called "morally corrupt" as opposed to, say, "degenerate."

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek analysis published by the liberal state-owned newspaper Beijing News on April 16, which has been republished by multiple Chinese media outlets since, attempts to decipher the disciplinary commission's code, focusing specifically on parsing the meaning of the four charges listed above. If all of them seemed to cover the same misconduct of extramarital sex, asked the newspaper, "What truly is the difference?"

Drawing from examples of fallen officials, the Beijing News showed there has been little rhyme or reason to the way in which such charges are assigned. The accusation of “moral corruption,” the Beijing News found, seems reserved for those adulterers with particularly wandering gazes. Looking at news reports and internal memos, the newspaper deduced that the lowest common denominator linking officials facing this charge was the keeping of at least three mistresses. Included in this category are Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, Liu Tienan, a former senior economic policymaker, Ni Fake, former provincial deputy governor ofcentral Anhui province, and most recently, Guo Yongxiang, the former deputy governor of western Sichuan province who was charged in April 2014.

Unsurprisingly, "serious moral corruption" is a bit more severe. To be charged with this, concluded the Beijing News, an official generally would not only have kept multiple mistresses, but his actions would also have brought about harmful effects, possibly because the affairs were carried out in the open. This at least appears to have been the case with former Wenzhou vice mayor Ye Jiren, sentenced by the Intermediate People's Court of Taizhou City to three years in prison for abuse of power in a land deal as well as "serious moral corruption leading to harmful effects." (Specifics of what such "harmful effects" may have been were not released.)

In any case, the Beijing News discovered, the three-plus mistresses rule is not a bright-line one. The cases of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Politburo member, and his onetime ally, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, are both notable exceptions; the two were separately accused of "having or maintaining improper relationships with several women." Prior to his fall, Bo in particular had enjoyed a formidable reputation as a philanderer. One Chinese journalist once told U.S.-based NPR that it'd be an "extremely conservative guess to say he had 100 mistresses." Yet neither Bo nor Wang were ever formally charged with "moral corruption."

Then there is the "degenerate lifestyle." This charge contemplates "fewer women with whom the officials have ‘improper relations,'" read the report. Instead, the officials "tend to have one or two ‘fixed' mistresses, though the mistresses may also partake in corrupt behavior." In past crackdowns on corruption before the Xi era, authorities slapped officials with this accusation far more frequently, often in cases in which both an official and his mistress were found to have taken bribes. More recently, however, "degenerate lifestyle" has been levied in conjunction with "moral corruption" to convey essentially the same concept: both an official and his mistress on the take.

One bureaucrat who recently faced shuangkai (simultaneous expulsion from the party and stripping of official titles) was Wang Guoyan, former party secretary of Nanchang Hangkong University, an aviation university in southeastern Jiangxi province. An investigator involved in the case told Beijing News that Wang was found guilty of spending large amounts of illicitly acquired lucre on his paramours, including facilitating a $160,000 bribe to invest in the hotel project of one of his more entrepreneurial mistresses. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking bribes of almost $1 million for, among other offenses, "moral corruption, degenerate lifestyle."

Then there are those officials whose lifestyles are "dissipated" rather than "degenerate." Though it seems to have mostly fallen out of use, the charge of leading a "dissipated lifestyle" likely involves use of luxury goods in addition to sexual misconduct. In December2011, Yang Guangliang, the deputy former mayor of Maoming city in southern Guangdong province, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for leading a "dissipated lifestyle" and taking millions in bribes over several years and using an alternate identity to sport expensive watches and large rings.

The lines between these charges waver so frequently and wantonly that Beijing News ultimately fails to reach any unifying theory about what behavior triggers which charge. But that may be the unstated point: No evident logic drives the disciplinary commission's assignments. For the party, charging officials with an ever-shifting array of moral delinquencies has the added benefit of personalizing illicit behavior, dodging mention of any system issues that may lie beneath. Even when official corruption reaches the Chinese public, and justice is meted (or at least sought), the public remains somewhere in the dark.

Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Is Hong Kong Running Out of Room?

40 million mainlanders flooded in last year, a number that's fast rising. But everyone is talking about pee.

HONG KONG — Tensions between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have escalated again, this time ostensibly over a toddler's diminutive bladder. On April 15, a scuffle broke out between young mainland parents, with their 2-year-old boy in tow, and a local man who tried to take videos of the child urinating on the side of a street in Mong Kok, a dense shopping district. Amateur videos of the conflict that ensued first went viral on social media in Hong Kong, but now the news has exploded onto the mainland Chinese Internet, incurring a ferocious backlash against Hong Kong.

In 2013, a staggering 40.7 million Chinese tourists visited Hong Kong, the former British colony that became a special administrative region of China after the 1997 handover, according to city authorities. The inflow of mainland tourists has overwhelmed this city of 7 million and brought a host of social problems, or at least inconveniences. Locals here complain bitterly about crowded sidewalks, the disappearance of mom-and-pop shops due to high rent, and a scarce milk powder supply, since mainland parents often try to smuggle the safer Hong Kong version home. Behavior involving children seems to be a particular flash point. In January 2012, a video of a mainland mother feeding her child some biscuits in a subway car in Hong Kong, where eating or drinking is not allowed, managed to cause an uproar. In February 2013, a mainland mother suffered online wrath after encouraging her son to urinate in a bottle in a busy Hong Kong restaurant. In April of that same year, Hong Kongers lashed out against mainland parents who let their children relieve themselves in a train compartment.

The uncouth behavior of certain overseas Chinese tourists often earns scorn back home. But Chinese Internet users have lodged their sympathy squarely with these mainland parents, who appeared to be well-dressed young urbanites, not boorish loudmouths. Phoenix Media, a Hong Kong-based outlet that mainly targets a mainland audience, first posted videos of the incident on Weibo, China's popular microblogging service, on April 21. Weibo statistics culled on April 22 already show over a half million total posts on the subject. 

A video posted online shows the child wailing loudly while the parents try to snatch the memory card from the camera of one young man filming the scene. The two sides evinced significant communications problems; the besieged family of three spoke Mandarin, while the Hong Kongers spoke Cantonese (the two dialects can be mutually unintelligible). The woman repeatedly yelled, "Don't you have children?" in Mandarin, at one point slapping the arm of a local man who grabbed the stroller. South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English newspaper, reported that the police later arrested the husband for attempted theft of the memory card, and the wife for assault. (While the husband was released unconditionally, the wife was released on bail but is due to report back to the Hong Kong police in mid-May.)

The vast majority of mainland comments accuse the Hong Kong man of intentionally humiliating and harassing a family that made the best of a bad bladder situation. Hao Qian, a financial reporter based in Europe, fumed, "Being civilized doesn't mean being coldblooded." Gao Cheng, an analyst at Chinese government-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, remarked that because of deep-seated fears of "homogenization and invasion" by mainlanders, Hong Kong lacks the "confidence and tolerance of a true cosmopolitan city." That's a stinging charge for a town that bills itself as "Asia's World City."

In mainland China, where paper diapers have only begun to catch on in urban areas over the past decade, toddlers in open pants are still a common sight, and tolerance for them answering the call of nature in public areas is high. In more upscale Hong Kong, by contrast, diapers are de rigueur for small children. Local parents caught short-handed can usually rush to the nearest shopping mall, often complete with child-friendly toilet seats and diaper-changing tables.

But this latest tiff goes beyond a culture clash. Tensions between mainland and Hong Kong have been simmering for years, with Hong Kongers fearing encroachment on their way of life and mainlanders angry that their presence is resented in a city nominally part of their own country (albeit a part governed by a separate system until 2047, one mainlanders need a passport to enter). Occasionally, radical locals have resorted to extreme tactics such as singing the "locust" song, a disparaging label for mainlanders, in front of tourists in busy shopping areas.

But in Hong Kong, and mainland China, money often talks -- perhaps it will do so here. With mainland tourists there projected to reach a stratospheric 70 million in 2017, Hong Kongers and their northern cousins have strong incentives to find ways to share the city's narrow sidewalks -- and its elusive restrooms. 

Photo: AFP/Getty Images