Tea Leaf Nation

Leaning In -- to Chinese Corruption

Looks can be deceiving. In China, official bribery -- even exchanging sex for power -- is still too normal.

It's no secret that graft is an essential part of climbing the Chinese Communist Party ranks. Now, according to Chinese state media, ambitious female cadres are increasingly being caught taking bribes and trading favors. On June 16, the state-controlled (but liberal) Beijing News named and shamed 12 female officials targeted by anti-corruption investigators in the first half of 2014. The report said most offenders were city officials in key posts. Four have already been charged; eight remain under investigation, although in the Chinese justice system the ultimate conviction rate of defendants is exceedingly high.

The Beijing News report didn't give detailed accounts of the alleged crimes. Instead, it was about a trend: female officials abusing their power. It cited government figures showing a 33 percent increase in the number of corruption cases involving female officials in the first 11 months of 2013, as compared to 2009. The dozen women listed as more recent offenders ranged from ages 41 to 60, and many had either taken bribes or traded sex for power. Headshots of the women that appeared to have been downloaded from official government websites were widely shared on Chinese social media site Weibo, with many users dubious about the sexual charisma of the mature, buttoned-up-looking offenders. "Their bosses must have pretty strange taste," wrote one commenter.

The photos were a stark contrast to the sultry female figure usually seen at the center of many Chinese corruption dramas: the mistress. The famous femme fatale Li Wei, busted on tax charges in 2006, reportedly raked in millions of dollars in stock, gifts, and real estate proceeds from deals facilitated by her well-connected paramours, including a former governor of the southern province of Yunnan and the chairman of oil giant Sinopec. Sometimes, usually when scorned, mistresses have also become whistleblowers, posting intimate photos and financial secrets online -- revelations that have led to probes. Top Chinese economic official Liu Tienan was sacked in May 2013 and expelled from the party after his mistress told an investigative journalist that Liu had embezzled $200 million and threatened to kill her. In June 2013, a district official in the southern megacity of Chongqing was sentenced to 13 years in jail for bribery. The investigation was triggered when a tape showing the man, Lei Zhengfu, having sex with an 18-year-old woman went viral online.

By contrast, the report on dirty female cadres felt novel, not because women officials are ordinarily so virtuous but because ranking female officials are so few. Political participation by Chinese women remains low, and has been for decades, despite repeated pledges by the party to bring more women into the political process through affirmative action.

But looks can be deceiving. Though they represent a minority in government, female officials have still been linked to a number of high-profile corruption cases. In November 2011, China executed Luo Yaping, known as Liaoning province's "land granny," for making off with more than $23 million in bribes and illicit wealth. Luo was a relatively low-level land development official in the rust belt city of Fushun but when she was detained she had more than $8,000 in cash in her purse and multiple bank cards, including one linked to an account with more than $3 million in it. In June 2005, a 49-year-old female police chief in Shenzhen was sentenced to 15 years in jail for taking bribes. State media said the cop, An Huijun, also doled out promotions in exchange for sexual favors from young officers.

The latest report underscores how in the Chinese system, corruption appeals to male and female alike. A June 16 China Daily article quoted Peking University researcher Li Chengyan as saying Chinese graft was gender blind. "Corruption has nothing to do with age and gender," Li said. Indeed, while some argue that getting more women into power results in cleaner government and less corruption, research suggests that women are actually just as likely as men to take bribes in an authoritarian system like China's. A 2013 study by a pair of scholars at Rice University and the National Democratic Institute found that female officials avoid risk, so were less likely to be corrupt in democracies but more likely to be corrupt in authoritarian systems where graft was pervasive. The scholars wrote, "Where corruption is stigmatized, women will be less tolerant of corruption and less likely to engage in it compared to men." On the other hand, if corruption is an ordinary part of governance, "then there will be no corruption gender gap."

The Beijing News article leaves the jump in female corruption cases unexplained. After all, there has been no corresponding spike in new female government recruits during that span. The increase is most likely linked to an anti-graft campaign launched by Xi Jinping shortly after he took over as China's top party official in November 2012. The government says that in 2013, 182,000 officials were punished for corruption violations, an increase of 20,000 dirty officials from 2012. It would seem men and women alike are being caught up in the graft crackdown -- a rare instance of gender parity in Chinese governance.

Images compiled by FP. Fair use. Do not reproduce compilation without permission.

Tea Leaf Nation

Is China Losing its 'Last Fair Path' to Prosperity?

Citizens may be losing faith in what looked like the last bastion of equal opportunity.

From the look of things, it's getting harder to be a cheater in China. The antifraud mechanisms used during China's most recent annual college entrance exam, commonly known as the gaokao, have been compared to counter-terrorism measures. The parallel was not entirely inapt: In early June 2014, when exam fever swept the nation, almost 10 million test-takers walked into test centers equipped with video cameras, ID card scanners, fingerprint machines, airport-style metal detectors, and high-tech monitoring vehicles that could identify radio signals beaming answers inside.

The stakes are high for Chinese teens and their parents because for most children, the gaokao score remains the sole determinant of college acceptance. For all of its problems, the ultra-grueling exam is often hailed as a great equalizer in a country where class stratification has become increasingly rigid. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds find it hard to go head to head with privileged peers. One popular saying on Chinese social network jokes that the gaokao "is the last chance to compete based on your abilities" because "after this, the boys have to compete based on who their daddies are, and the girls have to compete based on how they look." 

But cheaters are undeterred. In lieu of sophisticated chicanery that includes hidden earpieces, invisible ink, and cameras hidden in watches, some have opted for a more old-fashioned shortcut: humans who can be bought with cold hard cash. On June 17, about 10 days after this year's exams ended, China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned media behemoth, exposed a large ghostwriting scandal involving 165 people.

In the report, which the network began compiling months before the exam, CCTV journalists traced advertisements recruiting ghostwriters in the bathrooms of well-known universities in Wuhan, a large city in central China, which led to a man calling himself Teacher Li. (Chinese bathroom stall walls often function as ad hoc classified ads for all manner of illicit services.) Li told an undercover reporter, who pretended to be interested in the advertisement, that for his troubles -- pretending to be a high school student and taking the exam -- the reporter could earn as much as $8,000 for a score that won placement at an elite university, which is approximately the average annual salary in Wuhan. Even a score only sufficient for second-tier university admission would earn him over $3,000, Li added.   

Li claimed that he had bribed proctors to make sure the ghostwriters would pass the fingerprint and photo ID identifications at test centers located in small cities in Henan, an impoverished province in central China. "Imagine these small cities, where the relationship networks are tiny and everyone who matters is in on it," Li expounded to a hidden camera. Li said it takes him about $11,000 to "take care" of the proctors at one test center, and his clients are mostly children of "officials and rich people" in those small cities in Henan. In video taken surreptitiously at the test centers on the day of the exam, the fingerprint machine beeped repeatedly when a ghostwriter tried to pass with a fake fingerprint membrane she wore on her finger, but the proctor did not investigate further. At the end of the two-day exam, all of the ghostwriters that the undercover reporter had contact with completed their assignments without incident. 

After CCTV broadcast the report, the Ministry of Education vowed to punish those involved, including proctors, parents, arrangers, ghostwriters, and the would-be test-takers. Some may face criminal penalties. But catching these ghostwriters may not be enough to stem future cheating scandals because surrogate test-taking does not seem to be a new problem, nor one limited to Henan. Social media users have shared stories of their acquaintances and sometimes themselves involved in similar schemes. 

The uproar over the scandal is a reflection of China's collective anxiety over the lack of social mobility and fair play. The news is particularly wrenching to those who cling to the belief that the gaokao is one of the last bastions of equal opportunity untainted by money and power. As Zhang Ping, a newspaper editor in Henan, lamented on Weibo, "the last relatively fair path for upward mobility is now blocked."    

Photo credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images