[The Communist Party is promoting the series to set the mood for a leaders’ meeting starting on Monday that will lay down more stringent rules for members and officials. In many areas, they have been ordered to watch the show. And its hero is undoubtedly Mr. Xi, the only nondisgraced leader to be featured. He is described as spartan, humble and happy with a simple diet.]
By Chris Buckley
Bai Enpei, a former Communist Party secretary of Yunnan Province, received a death
sentence this month with a two-year reprieve on corruption charges.
Credit Imaginechina, via Associated Press
BEIJING — Feasts of crocodile tail. Pricey liquor by the bucketful. A nanny employed just to take care of pets. Bundles of jade bracelets worth millions. A free trip to the World Cup in Brazil.
Titillating scenes from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”? Not quite. They are highlights from a new Chinese television series about official corruption and loose living that is best described as “Lifestyles of the Venal and Disgraced.”
The documentary series, actually titled “Always on the Road,” has been shown on state television this week to emphasize that President Xi Jinping is serious about wiping out graft. Some of China’s most notorious fallen officials are shown repenting on camera, warning of the misery that comes from dirty wealth and imprisonment.
“I became possessed and lost my head,” says Bai Enpei, a former Communist Party secretary of Yunnan Province, in southwest China, who was given a death sentence with a reprieve for taking bribes of nearly $38 million. “I lost my ideals and had no higher aspirations, and I violated a bottom line of humanity.”
“I’m remorseful,” Mr. Bai says, looking haggard. “How did a provincial party secretary nurtured by the party for so many years change into this?”
But along with remorse, viewers get lip-smacking glimpses of how dozens of disgraced officials were once serious about having a wild time, paid for by abuses of power and bribes from crooked investors.
One admits that he felt flattered to be treated to crocodile meat by a businessman.
“He arranged for a crocodile tail, and it was a big one,” more than three feet long, recalls Zhang Jianjin, a former party secretary of a pharmaceutical company whose high living was paid for by businessmen seeking favors.
“It was laid out in a crescent shape and looked real nice. But I thought it was probably very expensive and had to be ordered in advance,” Mr. Zhang says. “Anyway, it showed that he was friendly.”
The Communist Party is promoting the series to set the mood for a leaders’ meeting starting on Monday that will lay down more stringent rules for members and officials. In many areas, they have been ordered to watch the show. And its hero is undoubtedly Mr. Xi, the only nondisgraced leader to be featured. He is described as spartan, humble and happy with a simple diet.
“Hold high a sharp saber against corruption,” Mr. Xi intones on the show. “Corrupt elements will be investigated and dealt with as they’re uncovered. Corruption must be punished. Graft must be purged.”
But viewers of Chinese television already get to see plenty of Mr. Xi in each news broadcast. For them, the main interest in the series has been the sight of once-mighty officials humbled and imprisoned.
It is an established part of China’s political stagecraft to parade disgraced officials on the state news media. But this series shows more than usual. The dyed jet-black hair the leaders had while in office — the customary sign of vigor for the cadre — has often turned gray and straggly in prison.
Some seem truly anguished.
“The wrong lies with me,” Li Chuncheng, the former party secretary of the southwestern city of Chengdu, confesses in sobs. “What was I doing all this time? You know, based on the usual retirement age, I was close to the end of my career. But because of my own mistakes, I’ve ended up like this. What a tragedy.”
Before the tragedy, though, there was plenty of indulgence. The documentary serves, inadvertently, as a guide to how Communist cadres got away with playboy millionaires’ lifestyles while preaching clean living and probity.
Zhou Benshun, the former party secretary of Hebei Province, in northern China, would publicly inveigh against corruption and then return to the 16-room, 8,600-square-foot house he had commandeered inside a military compound. His staff there included two cooks from his native Hunan Province, who knew how to please his spicy palate, and two nannies, one of whom took care of his pets.
Zhang Huiqing, the wife of Mr. Bai, the imprisoned official, pressed businessmen seeking favors to add to her staggering collection of jade jewelry, including a bracelet that cost $2.2 million. By the time the investigators searched the home of the couple, they had amassed rooms of expensive jewelry and rare redwood.
“It took us about two weeks just to clear up everything,” says one of the investigators in the case. “The jade bracelets had to be tied together with rope so that there was a whole chain of bracelets.”
Nie Chunyu, a fallen official from Shanxi Province — where abundant coal fueled flagrant corruption — explains that coal mine owners seeking favors would drop off bundles of $20,000 to $30,000.
“He wouldn’t force it on you, no,” Mr. Nie says. “He’d look in your office and if, say, your briefcase was on the desk, he’d open it up, put the cash inside and leave. Everyone understood.”
There are limits to candor in the series. The graft has been sanitized.
So far the most senior leaders toppled for corruption, called “tigers,” have made only brief appearances, and it is unclear whether viewers will get more of their stories. The rampant trade in military promotions has so far gone untouched.
And the great lubricant of corruption, sex, has also gone unmentioned.
But there is a lot about fancy food and drink. Mr. Zhang, the former pharmaceutical official, shares his experience on how to enjoy Moutai, an expensive and fierce clear Chinese liquor, without getting caught on smartphone cameras.
“Pour the Moutai into spring water bottles, and use the spring water bottles when everyone is sharing drinks,” Mr. Zhang explains. “Share them around and take a swig.”
Follow Chris Buckley on Twitter @ChuBailiang.