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How Ambition Buried an Official Known As ‘The Digger’

Ji Jianye Pursued Aggressive Development in Jiangsu Until Residents—and the Party—Had Enough

Cranes and bulldozers were quieter in the ancient city of Nanjing on October 16.

News broke that day that the city’s fifty-seven-year-old mayor, Ji Jianye, was being investigated for “suspected serious discipline violations,” the Communist Party’s favored euphemism for corruption.

The case may involve more than 20 million yuan, state-owned People’s Daily reports. It cited unnamed sources as saying Ji awarded government contracts to a company he had personal ties with. Ji was the tenth high-level party official to fall in an anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by the new leadership team that came to power in China in the fall of 2012.

In his four-year stint as the mayor of Nanjing, Ji earned the nickname “The Digger” because of his big appetite for bigger construction projects. From the once tranquil town of Kunshan in the eastern province of Jiangsu, to the provincial capital of Nanjing, Ji brought with him his zeal for construction.

This approach brought him success, but eventually led to his downfall.

Here’s My Number

Ji was born in 1958 into the family of a poor farmer in Shazhou County, which is part of the Jiangsu city of Suzhou. His education ended with high school.

He toiled for nine years in the propaganda office of Shazhou County, then in 1986 he joined the Suzhou Daily, a party newspaper, as its associate editor. A year later Ji’s father-in-law, Gao Dezheng, became mayor of Suzhou.

Over the next four years, Ji wrote about farmers who became entrepreneurs, fair competition, the commercialization of land and labor, and small towns that prospered by attracting factories. His work won provincial awards.

During his time at the Suzhou Daily, Ji closely followed the trend of building an “external economy,” a term that refers to local governments attracting investment on a large scale. This development model was championed by Gao, who would rise as high as deputy governor of Jiangsu.

Ji made his government debut in 1990 as the deputy head of Jiangsu’s Wu County. In 1996, he was promoted to vice mayor and vice party secretary of Kunshan, a small city in Jiangsu. His career was ready to take off.

Since the late 1980s, southern Jiangsu—a region sometimes called Sunan—became a hub for township and village enterprises (TVE), the businesses overseen by local governments that grew rapidly as the country embarked on its program of reform and opening up.

This led to the so-called Sunan model of development, which contrasted with the Wenzhou model that favored private firms as an engine for growth. (Wenzhou is a town in the eastern province of Zhejiang known for its energetic private businesses.)

Ji’s government career started just as TVEs were being transformed and were looking for a new way to add value and increase competitiveness.

Ji focused on businesses from Taiwan, whose manufacturing sector at the time was leading the island’s economy to new heights. He was on the forefront of luring investors from the island, so much so that in local business circles he was known as “a local boss who would wash the feet of Taiwanese business people.”

At an investment forum in Kunshan in 1998, Taiwanese delegates made eighty-eight suggestions that Ji implemented in a few months. He also handed out his business card, which had his private number, and told the visiting businessmen he would take their calls around the clock.

By 2001, Kunshan had attracted nearly 1,000 Taiwanese enterprises to its industrial parks. Total investment was a walloping 5.2 billion USD, or ten percent of the island’s total investment in the mainland.

Ji also spent heavily on infrastructure. The city spent hundreds of millions of yuan every year to build roads and bridges. In 1998, Kunshan was named a model city by the then National Bureau of Enviromental Protection.

The Kunshan experience in attracting outside investment was promoted all around Jiangsu—and Ji was promoted as well.

Rebuilding a City

Ji’s next post was a party boss of Yangzhou, a larger city that is also in Jiangsu. It was here that he earned for himself the first of his construction-themed nicknames. For his ability to push through construction projects, people referred to him as “The Bulldozer.”

When Ji arrived in Yangzhou in 2001, it was a laid-back city famous for its lake. Ji told a newspaper at the time that the traditional mindset of the people needed to be changed to one that embraced development.

Ji quickly turned Yangzhou into a large construction site. He basically planned to renovate the city by building a development zone, four industrial parks, and a number of special-focus parks and hubs for TVEs. Within a year, some 130 streets were renovated.

The huge amount of demolitions and construction projects met its share of resistance. At one point the deputy chief of the city inspection bureau was beaten by angry homeowners. However, Ji gave strict orders to subordinates to finish projects on time. Not even the military was spared. Several properties belonging to the military surrendered to a road project.

In three years with Ji as mayor and five as the party secretary, Yangzhou’s industrial output rose from 92.5 billion yuan per year to 500 billion yuan. He built the Yangtze River bridge and a railway station and doubled the size of the downtown area. He did all this while still promoting the protection of historical sites.

Just as in Kunshan, Ji enlisted the support of businessmen from Taiwan. Ji’s first year in Yangzhou saw the city receive more investment from the island than the previous nine years combined.

But a dark cloud of public anger formed over the shiny new projects. There were media reports that people opposed to the projects were illegally detained or beaten. Worse still, landowners who refused to give their property up to projects went missing.

There were also whispers in Yangzhou’s business circles that Ji was awarding large government contracts to a company with close ties to him. Those whispers would turn to shouts in Nanjing.

A Project Too Far

In 2009, Ji took his development model to Nanjing, the provincial capital. His first move was to rebuild three avenues almost simultaneously. The plan was met with great criticism, as people complained about the inconveniences caused by the projects.

In March 2011, Ji began to rip up the city’s beloved sycamore trees to make way for subway construction. More than 3,000 residents marched in silent protest against the move.

A year later, a large-scale demolition campaign—the biggest Nanjing has ever seen—again put Ji under scrutiny.  The campaign aimed to tear down 10 million square meters of illegal buildings in one year.

The plan was ambitious and officials had to resort to all kinds of methods to get people to comply. A local newspaper reported that when one woman refused to leave her home, which was scheduled for demolition, officials went to her grandchild’s school and told it to suspend the student until the woman obeyed.

Then a rainwater and sewage project that Ji played a key role in pushing through further annoyed the public. The plan would require 180 billion yuan and four years to transform the city’s underground drainage network. The huge project seemingly turned Nanjing into one big construction site.

However, party anti-corruption officials detained Ji before it could be completed. Officials halted the project and Nanjing residents greeted the news of The Digger’s downfall—which detention by the party usually means—by setting off fireworks.

Five days later, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the overzealous development of the city, calling the projects overly ambitious and arbitrary.