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China's anti-graft drive 'a testament of Xi's power'

Over 1,000 people have been marked as "naked officials" in China, suspected of funneling illicit gains to overseas relatives. Analyst Rebecca Liao says Beijing is resolved to block any escape route for corrupt officials.

More than 1,000 Chinese officials who have sent their spouses and children to live abroad have been targeted as part of Beijing's latest anti-graft campaign. Although not forbidden, the practice also gives corrupt officials a route to send abroad any funds obtained illegally and potentially avoid punishment. According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, some 200 public employees of the southern Guangdong Province have asked their families to return, while 866 agreed to accept demotion, including 9 at mayoral level.

It is the first time a provincial government has taken action against them. Because these government employees remain without their families, they are known colloquially as "naked officials" - a term popular with the public because of its mocking tone.

Rebecca Liao, a corporate attorney and writer specialized in Chinese politics and culture, says in a DW interview the latest move shows how determined President Xi Jinping is to prevent corrupt officials from escaping punishment and adds that the Guangdong campaign just represents the tip of the iceberg.

DW: Why has the government of President Xi Jinping decided just now to go after these officials?

"Naked officials" - officials whose spouses and children live abroad - have been a sensitive topic for over a decade. On the one hand, authorities and ordinary citizens keep asking themselves how committed these officials can be to China's future if their families don't even live in the country.

Rebecca Liao, corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley. Copyright: privat

Liao: "Beijing probably hopes Guangdong will serve as an effective warning to naked officials"

One needs to consider this is an incredibly expensive arrangement, one that officials should not be able to afford on their government salary alone, which leads to the suspicion of corruption.

On the other hand, families of officials may have accumulated the wealth legally and decided to live separately for perfectly legitimate reasons. A campaign against naked officials necessarily implies that this family decision must be illegal, and Xi probably weighed whether such a broad assumption was prudent.

Why were Guandong province officials specifically targeted?

Guangdong has the highest GDP among China's provinces. It is a hub of trade and manufacturing, and in many cases a key part of the supply chain for multinational companies. It is also located directly north of Hong Kong, a special administrative region that has historically served as a gateway out of China.

The opportunities for making deep foreign connections abound in Guangdong; the concentration of naked officials will undoubtedly be high. The government is probably hoping that Guangdong will serve as an effective warning to naked officials in other provinces or those thinking of sending their families abroad to keep them outside the anti-corruption net.

What sort of official belonging to the Communist Party of China (CPC) would have the means to send their families abroad?

CPC officials must have solid foreign connections and considerable wealth to afford to send their families abroad. The former may simply be a byproduct of the job, but fortunes are not made through government salaries.

Funds required to live abroad typically come from the official's family members, who may have obtained them through legitimate endeavors, inherited wealth or business dealings facilitated by promises of official favors. The burden is now on an official to prove that the money came solely from the first two sources.

The most famous "naked official" is probably the now convicted Bo Xilai, whose son Bo Guagua studied at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard. While Bo Guagua was in the United Kingdom, his mother often lived there as well.

Before Bo Xilai was convicted of bribery and corruption, the family maintained that Bo Guagua had earned scholarships to the expensive schools he attended, and that Bo's wife, who is now serving a prison sentence for killing her son's English benefactor, simply wanted to spend time with her young son. As we now know, the family's living arrangement was made possible through large-scale corruption. The strong suspicion in China is that there are many more families like the Bos.

How widespread is this practice within the CPC?

The practice is widespread enough that the party believes it should be a part of its anti-corruption campaign. It's hard to put a number on the practice nationwide, but I would not be surprised if Guangdong were just the tip of the iceberg.

Which countries would these officials would send their families to?

Where these officials send their families is usually driven by where they would like their children to study. For many Chinese, American and British schools are highly prestigious. Canada also remains popular because of its vast and established communities of Chinese immigrants.

Why is the CPC leadership so worried about this practice?

Historically, corrupt officials who fled the country sent their families ahead of them to pave the way. President Xi absolutely does not want corrupt officials to be able to escape punishment.

o Xilai, then Governor of Liaoning province and son of former Chinese Vice Premier Bo Yibo, delivers a speech at the China Entrepreneur Summit 2003 in Beijing, China, 7 December 2003. Cut-throat Chinese politics, and not a broader ideological battle, probably led to the banishment of Bo Xilai from the top ranks of Chinas Communist Party this week, former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said on Thursday (12 April 2012).

The most famous "naked official" is probably the now convicted Bo Xilai, says Liao

He also does not want to get embroiled in extradition fights with foreign countries because they often lead to the fugitive official publicly embarrassing the government by using the information he has on other officials as bargaining leverage.

Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign is seen as one of the most expansive in the country's modern history. What impact has it had on the Chinese population?

Most Chinese are certainly surprised about the scope of Xi's anti-corruption efforts, having assumed from the beginning that the widespread nature of corruption meant no official would be punished too heavily lest all be punished. That he has nevertheless been able to take a hard, aggressive stance is testament to Xi's power.

Whether the Chinese are convinced of the campaign's effectiveness is another matter. The general sense is that Xi's promise to go after "tigers and flies" has focused mostly on the latter, reaffirming the core unfairness that underlies corruption.

Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley, focusing on Chinese politics and culture.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.

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