Chinese corrupt officials and superstitious activities

It's whatever works, but ultimately doesn't

A few days ago another “tiger” was brought down by China’s anti-graft campaign, vice minister of culture and tourism Li Jinzao.

Li is neither very prominent among all the tigers, a euphemism for high level corrupt officials, nor his downfall particularly newsworthy, but a detail in news reports about his corruption activities caught your host’s eye, namely that Li “carried out superstitious activities”.

The charge is by no means rare in reports about corrupt officials but it has just occurred to your host that it is worth digging into what sort of superstitious activities corrupt officials carry out, and why.

【1】The juiciest part first, what exactly are the superstitious activities?

As you all probably know, the Communist Party of China upholds an atheist view. Based on your host’s understanding, any activities that are associated with religion, fengshui, or involve the supernatural can be considered “superstitious”. 

To be clear, the “superstitious activities” described in this newsletter may be widely practiced in the Chinese society and is perfectly lawful for the general public, but party members, especially those in power, are held to a different set of code of conduct.

In the world of corrupt officials, superstitious activities often take the form of wacky schemes that go beyond your everyday worshiping.  

Your host went through open records and compiled some superstitious activities conducted by corrupt officials.

According to an anti-corruption themed documentary released in 2016 titled “Always Underway” (永远在路上), Zhou Benshun, former party chief of Hebei province and a prominent tiger taken down in 2015, avidly “sought the protection of supernatural beings”.

The documentary said he placed Buddhist altars in his many homes, and would burn incense during Buddhist holidays.

“He’d pray whenever he sees a Buddha (statue), make contributions whenever he visits a temple. When a turtle he owned died, he hand copied Buddhist scripts to be buried together with the turtle,” the documentary said.

A Xinhua report in 2016 also described some superstitious activities.

Liu Zhijun, former minister of railways, reportedly would have “masters” determine “lucky dates”(黄道吉日) on which project launch would be held.

Li Chuncheng, vice party chief of Sichuan province until 2012, is also a believer of fengshui. Li is said to have moved ancestral graves to a location with better fengshui, with a company footing the 10 million yuan moving bill. When a major project in Sichuan’s Chengdu city suffered consecutive mishaps, Li had Taoist monks perform exorcism on the project.

Chen Hongping, former party chief of Guangdong province’s Jieyang city, personally practiced fengshui. On weekends he would venture into rural areas with special instruments to discover good fengshui spots. Many projects in Jieyang during his tenure is said to “reflect Chen’s outlook on fengshui.”

Shan Zengde, a former mid-level agriculture official in Shandong province, purposefully placed his office desk facing the window to “face the sun”(向阳), and hanged a landscape painting behind his seat to be “backed by a mountain”(靠山), both he considered lucky arrangements that can boost his career.

An article released by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in 2020 also listed some superstitious activities.

She Chaoli, a mid-level official in Hubei province, allegedly changed his son’s name based on fengshui and attended fengshui training courses on working days.

Quan Zhihua, previously a senior official at the University of South China who holds an M.D., was convinced that the reason for his congenital muscular torticollis was he “didn’t show respect to Bodhisattva”, a Buddhist deity.

Acting on this belief, Quan instructed a businessperson to donate one million yuan to a fengshui master in his name, hoping to win the blessing of Bodhisattva.

【2】

As demonstrated by the cases above, the two most common motives behind superstitious activities among officials are to advance careers, or to find self-comfort after having engaged in dirty dealings.

The superstitious activities by some Chinese officials became increasingly visible with the anti-corruption campaign led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, particularly after the communist party revised its discipline regulation in 2015, which cranked up the pressure against such activities.

According to the revised code, a party member can be stripped of position within the party or even booted from the party for “organizing superstitious activities”, while “participating in superstitious activities” is also a punishable offense.

In official readouts, there are several variations to the charge, such as “engaging in superstitious activities”, “grossly engaging in superstitious activities” or “engaging in superstitious activities for prolonged period of time”.

Your host would like to point out that the CPC Constitution governs the actions of party members, and is not applied to the general public.

Based on party literature, superstitious activities deserve scrutiny for at least two reasons.

First and foremost, it runs against party ideals.

The CPC has always prided itself in following the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which is derived from Karl Marx’s works and advocates atheism.

Ethics experts also argue that participating in superstitious activities undercuts a party member’s mission to serve the people.

Zhuang Deshui, a Peking University ethics scholar, said

Some party members choose fengshui over Marxism-Leninism, individuals over the party, and ghosts over the living. The downfall of these officials are proof that practicing superstition is merely a fool’s errand. Party members should uphold the principle of ‘serving the people is better than serving god’, actively improve welfare for the people, only satisfaction from the people can serve as one’s bedrock.

部分官员不信马列信风水,不信组织信个人,不问苍生问鬼神,但这些官员一一落马,恰恰证实了装神弄鬼、迷信鬼神是靠不住的。党员干部应该树立起“求神不如求民”的思想,积极为老百姓谋福利,让群众满意才靠得住。

Secondly, superstitious activities are almost always associated with corruption by officals.

Practicing superstitious activities is by no means cheap. Whether it be moving a grave, or making donations to temples or fengshui masters, the financing mostly come from businesses, which is a form of bribe, or from public coffers, which constitutes embezzlement.

Another form of corruption that is linked to superstitious activities is the formation of cliques around a “master”. Self-fashioned qigong master Wang Lin, who died in 2017, is said to have formed a network of influential people, including government officials, business people and celebrities. Such groups can serve as back channel for illegal lobbying or horse trading.

It’s worth noting that the party does not view these superstitious activities as sincere acts of worship, as they demonstrate strong traits of narrow self-interest, and in some cases downright hypocrisy.

For instance, at the home of Inner Mongolian official Wu Zhizhong, investigators discovered a Buddha room filled with nearly a hundred Buddha themed objects. But hidden in a cupboard in the same room is a equal number of porn discs, something the Buddha probably would frown upon.

Or, as illustrated by Sichuan’s Li Chuncheng, who deployed a cocktail of activities associated with different beliefs, it’s whatever works. You know, sort of like a certain U.S. real estate mogul switching between fengshui and the bible.

This newsletter is penned by Yang Liu, founder of Beijing Channel.