24 May 2019
Zhou Yongkang has been snared in China's anti-graft crackdown, but many other former officials have fled the country with ill-gotten wealth. Photo: Xinhua
Zhou Yongkang has been snared in China's anti-graft crackdown, but many other former officials have fled the country with ill-gotten wealth. Photo: Xinhua

Corrupt ‘patriots’ lead new China emigration wave

Beijing appears to be waging an all-out graft-busting campaign with the expulsion of Zhou Yongkang, a former security tsar who had also been a standing committee member of the Communist Party’s politburo.

Zhou is so far the most senior bureaucrat to have been nailed. But not everyone agrees that China is making progress in clean governance. In a global anti-corruption ranking by Berlin-based Transparency International, China has slipped to the 100th spot now from 80 last year.

The ranking is not “another attempt by evil overseas forces to smear us”, but rather a reflection of China’s constitutional defects. Unless there is a resolute overhaul of the political system, the country will still be plagued by wide-spread corruption.

In Zhou’s saga, he was already corrupt during his early days of official career when he held a number of posts in Liaoning and Sichuan provinces, and at China National Petroleum Corp. as well as the Ministry of Public Security.

The question here is how come Zhou, who had been the subject of all sorts of rumors and scandals about his corruption and licentious lifestyle, still got promoted all the way to the top with virtually unrestrained power at his disposal.

This year, mainland media have reported many cases in which low-ranking cadres took huge bribes. You don’t even have to be so senior in the political hierarchy to indulge in large-scale corruption; a little power also goes a long way.

Now, one may feel confused why there is another noticeable wave of emigration from China, especially among Communist cadres, at a time when the country seems to be more prosperous than ever and is quickly becoming a global economic power.

There are indeed several noteworthy implications.

Unlike the previous wave in the 80s and 90s when many mainland students headed for countries such as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand that have good academic institutions, migration destinations of officials in recent years have been far more diverse. The list now included small countries like Portugal, Cyprus, Iceland, South American countries or even some African nations like South Africa and Ghana.

Members of the swelling emigrant ranks are mostly major beneficiaries of China’s economic reforms: Communist princelings or offspring of factory owners who joined the party amid a push by the then President Jiang Zemin in the 1990s.

The emigration business is booming.

The Ministry of Public Security supervises the operation of immigration agencies and data from the ministry show that the number of such agencies has ballooned by 18.5 percent last year to 935 nationwide. An immigration agent revealed that since 2007, the overall number of Chinese moving overseas has doubled every two years.

All this is happening even as patriotic zeal was running high in the country, with China hosting some mega events.

In 2010 for example, when China hosted Shanghai World Expo and GDP expanded by 14.7 percent, the number of immigration agencies surged 16 percent that year.

It’s no secret that officials who think of moving overseas are also among those who lead the way in showing patriotism and political allegiance whenever the country accomplishes some remarkable feat. By doing so, the officials can use it as a disguise to deceive other comrades before their family members and wealth takes flight.

It’s safe to say that operators of the immigration agencies must be resourceful and well-connected. Often, they can be close allies of the runaway officials or members of the nation’s ruling elites.

Agencies’ services also extend to the destination country and include everything from application, language training and legal counseling to lubricating the process if there are problems.

The baseline charge can be well over 300,000 yuan (US$48,590) if the target is an Eastern European country. It gets more expensive for those aiming at more developed places.

Since most cadres apply under the capital investment entrant scheme, they also need to set aside a large amount of money for investment in the destination country – 500,000 euros in Portugal for instance.

But such charges are nothing for those who seek a shelter after they have milked enough out of their posts. In one of the reported cases, a general manager of a state-owned water supply firm in Qinhuangdao, a county-level city in Hebei province, had cash totaling 120 million yuan (HK$19.44 million) and 37 kilograms of pure gold stocked at his home.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 8. 

Translation by Frank Chen

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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