‘Gold bars and Moutai’: TV series spotlights China’s corrupt officials

China’s football stars had expected to be put through their paces on the training pitch this week as they prepared for the Asian Cup in Qatar.

Instead, their practice regime included compulsory viewing of a state media television programme that featured their former coach and other senior sporting officials repenting for match fixing, bribing opponents and accepting cash for spots in the national team.

The football exposé concluded a four-part CCTV series on China’s anti-corruption campaign that aired on prime time this week to the country’s 1.4bn people, laying out how President Xi Jinping’s hallmark graft crackdown is expanding in his second decade in power.

It has also prompted criticism of how the Chinese Communist party leadership has for years tried to divert attention from the systemic roots of corruption in the country.

In addition to the failings of China’s football administrators, the series — titled “Continued Efforts, Deepening Progress” — heaped blame on provincial-level officials for the build-up of trillions of dollars in local government debt, a burden that now threatens the financial stability of the world’s second-biggest economy.

It also turned a spotlight on high-level graft at China’s central bank, an institution that has become increasingly sidelined from policymaking as Xi’s administration centralises the party’s control over the financial system.

The renewed anti-corruption push comes as Chinese policymakers seek to restore confidence in their ability to strengthen a fragile economic recovery that has failed to pick up pace since the end of pandemic-era restrictions a year ago.

In one episode, the documentary focuses on Li Zaiyong, a former Communist party chief in Liupanshui, a coal mining city in the south-western province of Guizhou. According to state media, Li pushed the city to borrow more than Rmb150bn ($21bn) to fund tourism projects during his tenure from 2014 to 2017, including a “vanity” ski resort at nearby Meihuashan, an area unsuited to large-scale winter sports tourism.

Li’s decision to spend the funds — equivalent to the city’s entire GDP — was motivated by political ambition, according to a confession aired in the series.

He said he had wanted to gain his superior’s attention with a “big bang” and move up the party ranks. “I would definitely not borrow [that much] if it was my own project,” he said. “I’ll leave from the post in a few years; whoever takes over my role will bear the debt responsibility.” 

Such financial mismanagement helps, in part, to explain how Guizhou had amassed debts of Rmb1.2tn ($168bn) by the end of 2022. 

Another target was Fan Yifei, the former governor of the People’s Bank of China, who detailed how he accepted bribes under the guise of “investment projects” or “financial products” and hid cash via a shell company owned by his younger brother.

“If a businessman sent money to my office, I wouldn’t accept it,” said Fan. “However, if, for example, he was gifting stocks and didn’t give them directly to me but to my family members, then that’s a different story.”

Qian Long, an official in the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s deeply feared internal watchdog, said Fan, who stepped down from the central bank in 2022 after he was placed under investigation, had taken advantage of financial market rules to conceal illicit activities and trade his influence for wealth.

“I want to be an official and want to be rich at the same time,” Fan said. “I now realise that is very wrong.”

David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project and an expert on Chinese propaganda, said the series, which showed allegedly corrupt officials with the trappings of their wealth, follows a “terribly familiar pattern” of glorifying the party leadership and governance while demonising individual officials. 

“Always gold bars and Maotai [Chinese liquor] . . . All of this serves to distract from the systemic aspects of corruption — how the failure to put real checks and balances into place made corruption inevitable,” he said.

China’s propaganda organs and legal system also often rely on the use of confessions, which experts have long criticised for being elicited under duress.

Since Xi assumed leadership of the CCP in 2012, China’s anti-corruption investigations have targeted millions of so-called tigers and flies, or high- and low-ranking officials, in a sweeping campaign that has served the dual purpose of stamping out graft and eliminating rival political factions.

The television series came as Xi this week put China’s business, state and Communist party apparatus on notice over corruption in a speech published in state media on Monday.

On Wednesday, the discipline commission issued an extensive communiqué that said Xi’s long-running anti-corruption campaign demonstrated the party’s high degree of “self-purification”. Investigations would prioritise China’s finance, agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors as well as state-owned enterprises, it added. Universities, sports and the tobacco industry were named for closer scrutiny too.

The statement also highlighted fraudulent government statistics, which the justice ministry has previously warned were damaging to government credibility.

Bandurski said that while the CCTV series did highlight genuine malfeasance, “real corruption is just in the nature of the system”.

“Anti-corruption campaigns in China are always propaganda campaigns,” he said. “Corruption is endemic, and empowered by a system in which there is little structural accountability and a great deal of political dealmaking.”

The punishments handed down to many of the alleged culprits — including Li and Fan — have not been made public. But a number of those close to the watchdog’s glare rushed to demonstrate their commitment to tackling corruption.

On Wednesday, Guizhou officials issued a notice vowing to strictly police new investments. The discipline inspection leadership has vowed to study Xi’s directives with “heart and soul”. And after watching the former national team coach admit his sins, China’s top footballers each penned a 1,500-word essay in reflection.

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