BEIJING – China's anti-graft campaign is now targeting officials who have sent their spouses and children abroad, where they can create channels to potentially funnel illicit gains and establish footholds for eventual escape from the mainland.
Nearly 900, mostly mid-level, government officials in the southern province of Guangdong have been demoted or forced to resign or retire early after being identified as having spouses or offspring with permanent residency or citizenship abroad while they themselves continue to work on the mainland. Because they remain without their families, they are known colloquially as "naked officials" — a term popular with the public because of its mocking tone.
It is the first time a provincial government has taken action against them.
The move signals a new approach in President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign that takes aim at a phenomenon in Chinese politics that has hindered the Communist Party's efforts to curb the flight of crooked officials and their ill-gotten assets.
"The perception among the Chinese public is that these officials use their positions for their personal gains, then they send their families away and when the time comes, they are going to bail," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.
Guangdong authorities said they found more than 1,000 such officials, among whom about a fifth had promised to try to get their families to return to China. Though it's up for debate, the general definition of "naked officials" excludes officials whose children are only studying abroad but not holding foreign residency or passports — allowing the sons and daughters of top leaders to pursue expensive college degrees at top overseas universities.
Political analysts and state media reports said that with its proximity to semi-autonomous Hong Kong and its links to overseas Chinese communities around the world, Guangdong was the natural place for such efforts to be launched.
But the problem is by no means unique to Guangdong.
In 2012, Wang Guoqiang, the former Communist Party boss of the small northeastern Chinese city of Fengcheng, fled China to join his daughter in the United States. With him, Wang brought his wife and a rumored 200 million yuan ($30 million) in illicit funds, according to state media reports.
Months later, authorities in Liaoning province said they had launched an investigation into Wang for accepting bribes and violating party regulations on traveling overseas without permission. The party's discipline organ fired Wang from the party and his government posts. But he already had fled the country.
In a separate case, an investigation into Zhang Shuguang, the former deputy chief engineer of the now-defunct Railways Ministry in Beijing, found that his wife and daughter had immigrated to America where the family owned a large mansion in Los Angeles County. Zhang faces accusations of accepting 47.6 million yuan ($8 million) in bribes and is awaiting trial.
Chinese authorities last year arrested 762 people suspected of work-related crimes who had been on the run and retrieved illegal gains worth 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion), according to the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the office of the country's top prosecutor, though it wasn't clear how many of those defendants were overseas.
Since Xi was appointed to the helm of the Communist Party in late 2012, he's vowed to purify the party's ranks with an austerity drive and a crackdown on graft that targets both lower-ranking officials and senior leaders. The campaign, seen as one of the most expansive in the country's modern history, has felled dozens of government and party officials and senior executives from state-owned companies.
Some researchers estimate that thousands of Chinese officials have absconded over the past couple of decades with assets worth hundreds of billions of yuan (tens of billions of dollars).
When officials flee the country with bags of money or appear poised to do so, they not only hurt the party's image but reflect a wider anxiety among the elite about the future of China under Communist rule. They also pose a strategic threat if they take state secrets with them, an analyst said.
"These members of the elite do not have faith in the long-term future of the Communist Party, so along with money, they also take along with them state secrets or intellectual property rights regarding high technology and so forth," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "I think this is what they're most worried about. This exodus of members of the elite could compromise state security."
Some commentaries in Chinese media have said mere demotions or forced retirement may be too lenient a treatment for naked officials, and have urged full-fledged investigations into graft. Others have noted that some officials' children or spouses might have legitimate reasons to have overseas residency, for jobs or business.
The provincial crackdown is a pilot project that likely will be rolled out to other parts of China, said Mao Zhaohui, head of the Anti-Graft Research Center at Beijing's Renmin University.
"The move shows that the central authorities are strengthening political discipline," Mao said.
In January, the party issued regulations saying that "naked officials" would not be eligible for promotion. But critics noted that enforcement depended on the officials' own reporting on the status of their spouse and children, and that they can simply lie about it.