China’s Graft Busters Pursue Very Old Cases—and Even the Dead Can’t Escape – The Wall Street Journal

HONG KONG—Having hunted everyone from high-powered politicians to lowly bureaucrats, China’s graft busters are now trying to reach back in time, scouring old case files to find possible wrongdoing that authorities had overlooked or chosen not to pursue.

Communist Party investigators have hauled in a string of long-serving and former officials over the past year for alleged corruption and other offenses dating back decades, in a series of retrospective probes that first gained attention by targeting one of China’s largest coal-producing regions and has since spread across the country.

Authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have detained dozens of retired officials now in their 60s and 70s, including one who stepped down more than 14 years earlier, since launching a campaign in the spring of 2020 to punish alleged coal-related corruption going back 20 years. In recent months, judicial agencies in several cities said they were reviewing commuted jail sentences and parole cases from as long as three decades ago to uncover past misconduct. In May, Beijing ordered public-security agencies to set up mechanisms for reinvestigating old cases as part of a national crackdown on organized crime.

‘The fight against corruption never ends.’

— Chinese President Xi Jinping

The retrospective probes mark a shift in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s long-running anticorruption drive, which has helped him purge rivals and concentrate power, and has mainly targeted people involved in recent or continuing abuses—a practice that some officials regarded as a quasi-amnesty for those who showed restraint after Mr. Xi took power in late 2012.

In stepping up scrutiny into past misconduct and enforcing lifelong accountability for officials, Mr. Xi wants “to keep the fight against corruption constantly at high pressure and renew it perpetually,” said Ren Jianming, director of the Clean Governance Research and Education Center at Beihang University in Beijing.

Some experts say the antigraft campaign has helped reduce corruption and reinforced Mr. Xi’s authority ahead of his expected bid for a third term as Communist Party chief next year, but the latest clampdowns could exacerbate inaction among officials who are increasingly afraid of running afoul of an expanding set of rules Mr. Xi has imposed upon party members. 

The campaign “also discourages experimentation, innovation and risk-taking among local cadres for fear that any departure from established and approved procedures may be deemed illegal,” said Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard University who studies Chinese politics. “And certainly the retrospective inspections compound this fear.”

A series of retrospective probes that first gained attention by targeting Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest coal-producing regions, has since spread across the country.

Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

Similar to how Mao Zedong sought to keep the Communist Party on a constant revolutionary footing, Mr. Xi has ceaselessly expanded and reinvented his anticorruption campaign, saying it is necessary to keep officials from becoming complacent. But while Mao often ruled through disorder, Mr. Xi has been doing the opposite, strengthening bureaucratic control through an unprecedented push to enact party rules.

In contrast to past leaders whose antigraft efforts often fizzled after initial fervor, Mr. Xi has reinforced his campaign with relentless rule-making, dictating behavior for everyone from top leaders to the rank and file in a 92 million-strong party.

Mr. Xi set the party’s first ever five-year plans for drafting internal party rules, aimed at creating a comprehensive intraparty legal system in time for the party’s centennial this summer. 

His administration has enacted or revised more than 40 major party regulations prescribing duties and conduct for members. That is roughly three times what former leader Hu Jintao did as party chief from 2002 to 2012, and more than double what Jiang Zemin did during his 13-year stint as party leader before that, according to a Wall Street Journal review of data from Chinalawinfo, a legal-information database affiliated with Peking University.

MORE ON CHINA’S COMMUNIST PARTY

This week, for instance, the Xi administration published new regulations that specify how the party should set up internal structures aimed at cultivating a loyal and effective bureaucracy.

Party academics counted more than 4,900 sets of internal regulations as of 2019, including about 230 issued by the central leadership. But officials conceded that more rules haven’t necessarily meant better discipline. 

Some party members “don’t study, don’t know and don’t understand internal party regulations,” wrote Xu Li, a provincial official, in a January issue of the party journal Red Flag Manuscript.

Authorities have released guidebooks and explanatory articles to help party members navigate the dizzying array of strictures. One social-media post, published by a provincial party agency in September, read: “There are so many internal party regulations, do you know the differences between them?”

Xi Jinping called for tougher enforcement of party regulations during a 2019 visit to Inner Mongolia.

Photo: Li Gang/Xinhua/Zuma Press

Mr. Xi’s solution for lax compliance is tougher policing. “There are many internal party regulations and the main problem is ineffective enforcement,” he said during a 2019 visit to Inner Mongolia. “We must strengthen enforcement of the legal regulatory system, and spare no expense.”

Months later, authorities announced a campaign to “probe backwards 20 years” into Inner Mongolia’s coal industry to cleanse what they described as deep-seated corruption. At around the same time, authorities in the northwestern province of Gansu said they were probing state-owned enterprises for past impropriety and embezzlement.

As of late April, investigators in Inner Mongolia had opened cases against nearly 1,000 people, including one deceased official, and recovered the equivalent of more than $6 billion in economic losses, according to party disclosures and state media reports. 

Among those targeted were at least 34 retired officials, including one who turns 75 this month and left office in 2006, according to a Wall Street Journal review of party disclosures.

Guo Chengxin, a 66-year-old former coal-bureau director in the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, was detained in May last year after retiring in early 2015. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Mr. Guo allegedly took money from “coal bosses” in exchange for favors and profited off improper investments. 

“I considered turning myself in, but I had second thoughts, ‘What if I could muddle through and get away with it?” recalled Mr. Guo in a video interview released by Xinhua in April. “The ‘probe backwards 20 years’ campaign needed to be done,” he said. “A whole cohort of cadres turned bad.”

Mr. Guo couldn’t be reached for comment.

Party authorities have praised Inner Mongolia’s efforts and signaled greater use of retrospective probes. In recent months, top law-enforcement officials have ordered efforts to review old organized-crime cases and investigate past misconduct by public-security officers.

The party must show “zero tolerance” on graft however long it takes to uncover wrongdoing, Mr. Xi told Inner Mongolia officials in March. “The fight against corruption never ends,” he said.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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China’s Graft Busters Pursue Very Old Cases—and Even the Dead Can’t Escape – The Wall Street Journal

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