“Naked Official” Streaks to U.S.

On Monday, the People’s Daily confirmed rumors that Wang Guoqiang, a senior official of Fengcheng city, Liaoning province, fled China in April to the United States. Though Wang has been absent since April, his case was only uncovered last Sunday, when rumors began circulating on the Internet that Wang, after having been exposed for corruption, left the country to join his family in the United States, taking along with him 200 million yuan (US$31.45 million).

The sheer sum of money taken, as well as the government’s subsequent efforts to cover up Wang’s escape, have provoked outrage amongst netizens and the media, many of whom are raising critical questions about how this might have happened. Though officials have yet to confirm whether or not Wang did in fact run away with US$31 million, netizens are nevertheless questioning where the money came from and how Wang may have absconded with such a large sum.

Given the absence of official information regarding Wang’s escape, calls are also being made for Wang’s abettors to be routed out and held accountable. As netizens and the media have reasoned, Wang could not have left without substantial help along the way. In an editorial entitled “Corrupt Official Runs Away with 200 Million Yuan—Who is Responsible?” published on Tuesday on Changjiang Network, the author writes, “The thing that’s really puzzling people is how Wang Guoqiang, this mere seven-item sesame official1 could have quietly carried away 200 million yuan and not have been discovered until several months later, when rumors began circulating online that ‘something had happened’ with the Party secretary. That in the intervening months there was no one in his seat is the issue that is most shocking to people.” Wang’s position was filled two weeks ago on August 15 by Fengcheng city mayor Ma Yanchun, according to the Fengcheng government website.

The editorial goes on to ask several hard-hitting—and ultimately rhetorical—questions about the role played by the supporting characters in the Wang scandal: Wang’s local Party official colleagues, the local financial management department, and Wang’s Party superiors. “In seeking to rein in corrupt officials,” the editorial exhorts, “don’t forget the officials who are responsible for paving the road for their escape. Otherwise, the phenomenon of corrupt officials fleeing the country with money will continue, wave after wave, bringing more shame to the country and killing the public’s confidence in both the government and the Party.”

In another editorial published on Tuesday in the People’s Daily, author Xu Zhixiang turns the focus toward the individual who might have tipped Wang off to the knowledge that he would soon become the subject of a criminal investigation for bribery. Xu suggests that with each official that flees abroad, they leave behind an entire network of cronies in whose interest it is also to move the scent of corruption far and away. The solution to the problem, Xu argues, is not only to increase supervision of so-called “naked officials,” especially those who apply to go abroad for “training” purposes, but also to strengthen disciplinary and Party education for those who might potentially leak information to the naked officials. Xu was ostensibly referring to reports that Wang was able to leave the country on a one-year multi-entry visa that he had obtained for the purpose of “training abroad,” a practice that has been touted by the government as a way for lower-level officials to acquire “modern governance skills.”

Furthermore, Wang’s case taps into a long-simmering source of discontent amongst Chinese citizens regarding the phenomenon of Chinese government officials moving their families and assets abroad. There is even a Chinese phrase to describe such officials: luo guan, or “naked official.” Oftentimes, the officials themselves have opted to leave behind their mistresses, houses, cars, and official titles in order to make the escape abroad. The Economist reported earlier this year that in 2011, the People’s Bank of China had published an estimate that up to 18,000 officials had fled the country between 1995 and 2008 with stolen assets totaling 800 billion yuan (US$126 billion). In the June 2012 issue of China Economic Weekly, the typical “naked official” was described as being a man in his fifties, approaching retirement, and having accumulated at least $13 million.

The central government, it appears, has already made moves to stop the unauthorized emigration of officials abroad. According to the People’s Daily report, the news of Wang’s escape comes amid the nation’s testing of measures that prevents corrupt officials from running away and that repatriates fugitives. The pilot project has so far been introduced in ten provinces, according to the report. The aim is to establish an early warning system for potential defectors by, for example, requiring officials to report their assets and whereabouts of their family members overseas, as well as optimizing the passport management system.

Wang Guoqiang may have made his escape, but his future still remains unclear. Though the U.S. and China do not have a repatriation treaty, the People’s Daily reported last year that the U.S. was cooperating with China to help repatriate Chinese fugitives facing corruption charges. Before that happens, however, government officials in Liaoning would do well to address a more immediate issue—setting the record straight regarding Wang’s escape for netizens and the media. The call for greater transparency has been sounded by even the Global Times, the Party’s mouthpiece newspaper.

“Why didn’t officials take the initiative to publish the news about Wang but instead allow rumors to spread and let the issue be exposed by the media?” the newspaper wrote. “Wang’s flight is certainly a scandal. It would be good for the officials if such a scandal could be hidden, but that’s hardly realistic. Only when the public gets to know the truth about a scandal involving officials through normal means can the damage it causes be limited to the minimum.”

  1. “Seven-item sesame official,” or qi pin zhima guan is a term used to refer to petty low-level bureaucrats whose power is no more than the size of a sesame seed.
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