China's fearsome jiwei take on graft
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - China has strived for "socialism with Chinese characteristics" for
the past three decades, following a course set by paramount leader Deng
Xiaoping. While the nation has adopted certain international norms, its economy
and society are mostly Chinese in nature. Even the ruling Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) has many "Chinese characteristics".
However, as the CCP has retained its grip on power since 1949, some
characteristics of party rule have, in turn, rubbed off on political and legal
traditions. The party's system for catching corrupt officials is one example.
In nations with a rule of law, crackdowns on corruption are led by
law-enforcement forces. But in China, the top graft buster is the CCP's Central
Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI). In each province, city and
county, CCDI at staff at different levels are empowered to investigate
corruption cases. For example, a provincial commission can investigate
prefecture-level officials, and so on. The CCDI are referred to as jiwei
Jiwei at all levels are not law-enforcement organs - they are more
powerful. A jiwei can summon any party or government official under its
jurisdiction for questioning and have him or her immediately put under house
arrest for investigation. The process is known as shuan'gui.
No time limit is set for shuan'gui - an official can be held for as long
as is necessary. When enough evidence is found, the official is handed over to
the public prosecutor. Before his conviction in 2008 for graft, former Shanghai
party secretary Chen Liangyu was held in shuan'gui for over a year.
Shuan'gui is not stipulated in the constitution or any law, and can be
authorized without judicial involvement or oversight, leading to criticism from
legal experts. But from the CCP's point of view, the party is entitled to
whatever steps it needs to keep its own house in order. In China, almost all
officials are party members subject to party discipline before they are
prosecuted by the law. Also, according to unwritten rules, party members cannot
stand trial unless their membership has first been revoked - to save the ruling
The premise that the party polices itself with jiwei seems appropriate
for a nation taking on "CCP characteristics". While official corruption appears
rampant in China, without jiwei and unconventional methods, it may have
run out of control. There is a saying in Chinese officialdom: "Powerful
officials fear nothing but a knock on their doors by jiwei". This fear
of jiwei was recently illustrated by a case in Chongqing, southwest
The drama unfolded in March while a sweeping crackdown on gangsters and corrupt
officials ordered by party secretary Bo Xilai was underway. As reported by the
Chongqing Morning News, three men walked into the office of a district bureau
director. One of them waved what seemed to be jiwei identification - a
tiny booklet with a blue plastic cover, and said, "We were tipped off that
you've been taking bribes. Come with us immediately."
Unnerved, the director hurriedly offered seats and cigarettes to the men,
forgetting to check their IDs. But the impatient trio ordered him to leave
immediately - and the official obeyed. Two men grabbed his arms and shoved him
out of the office building. No one dared intervene.
The official was then driven to an unknown location for shuan'gui.
Cooperative from the start, the director made a "full confession", even
divulging the pin (personal identification) number of a bank account which had
140,000 yuan (US$20,500) in it. The three men quickly withdrew the funds.
The official then told his captors about another bank account with 700,000 yuan
in it and the men took him back to his office to retrieve the card. But by now,
the official was beginning to suspect something.
Since real jiwei would never withdraw money from a suspect's account
that could be used as evidence, the official shouted for help in his office.
The men were quickly apprehended. It turned out that the fearsome jiwei were
three unemployed, uneducated imposters.
During their police interrogation, the suspects confessed that they had taken
inspiration for the crime and learned to act like real jiwei from
anti-graft movies. The crime happened amid Xi's "Strike Hard" crackdown, so the
three were quickly prosecuted with the mastermind receiving nine years in jail
and the other two seven years each.
The Chongqing Morning News article received plenty of attention, and media
commentators and netizens began to complain that it had omitted details. Why
did the three men choose that particular official? Was it random or did they
know something about him? What happened to the official involved?
The public are now demanding full exposure. As a bureau director, his income
should only be a few thousand yuan a month, yet his accounts contained 840,000
yuan. The public have demanded that real jiwei conduct an investigation.
Some have joked that the fake jiwei were more efficient than their real
counterparts. The bureau director will likely now face a very real
investigation by the jiwei.
This story shows, in an almost comical way, how jiwei strike fear into
the hearts of powerful Chinese officials. In recent years, President Hu Jintao
has further expanded the power of jiwei by making their upper-level
clearance a prerequisite for an official's promotion. In essence, jiwei now
also hold the political careers of party and government officials in their
It is reassuring to know that jiwei are increasingly fearless in their
pursuit of corrupt officials, but it makes one worry: who is powerful enough to
stop them from abusing their powers?