Is China's anti-corruption campaign now turning on itself, like a snake eating its own tail?
The drive to root out graft in the Communist Party, launched more than two years ago after Xi Jinping took office as president, claimed its latest victim this week: An official who was carrying out the campaign in Shanxi province was fired after allegedly being caught with more than $31 million in cash.
Liu Xiangdong, a leading official of the "inspection team" in charge of the government's anti-corruption efforts in Shanxi, was stripped of his Communist Party membership and removed from his position, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-corruption committee, said in a statement on its website.
Liu was accused of "violating inspection rules and leaking related secrets" and accepting large bribes. Wang Rulin, a top official in the province, said that investigators discovered about $31.7 million in Chinese currency at Liu's home and that most of the bills were covered in dust and fungus.
Liu also was in charge of the environment protection bureau in Shanxi, a province notorious for pollution from its coal mining industry.
China's anti-corruption campaign has brought down a number of heavyweights, including the former domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang; two former vice presidents of the Central Military Commission, China's top military command; and Ling Jihua, a top aide to former President Hu Jintao.
While Xi has pledged he's not afraid of taking down "big tigers" — high-ranking officials who were immune to previous anti-corruption campaigns — critics say the latest drive is unlikely to be more effective than previous efforts unless authorities establish some independent supervisory mechanisms and allow the public to be involved from a grassroots level. The party so far has resisted calls for measures such as mandatory disclosure of assets.
Xi's campaign is primarily carried out by "inspection teams" dispatched by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Members are in charge of auditing officials in different provinces and busting corrupt bureaucrats in various levels of the government.
The inspection teams are comprised mostly of local officials who are deemed trustworthy by the party's top anti-corruption organization. But it is difficult to root out corruption by handing the task to officials who are products of the same system.
Liu was the first leading official of the anti-graft efforts to be fired for corruption.
His removal comes a month after Zhang Jianwei, an official leading the anti-graft efforts at the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp., was found dead in his office Nov. 3, Sohu Finance reported. Chinese authorities are still investigating Zhang's death and have not ruled it a suicide, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. His is among a number of unexplained deaths of government officials.
Word that an official in charge of the anti-corruption efforts was being charged with corruption prompted commentators on social media website Weibo to question the architecture of the campaign.
"Shocking! Even the inspection team is like this. Do we still need them?" a user from Guangdong wrote.
"I can boldly predict the headline of a future news story: the inspector who supervises the 'inspection team' has been charged with corruption. This method is just wrong and the whole anti-corruption campaign is a joke," wrote a Beijing-based user who often advocates equal educational rights.
Despite such criticism, the campaign continues. This week, authorities announced that the former vice governor of Yunnan province, Shen Peiping, had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for accepting more than $2.5 million in bribes. Unlike the money Liu is accused of taking, Shen's bribes were said to be mostly in the form of jade and high-grade Pu'er tea.
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.