Swatting a fly

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-24 21:38:01

Reports show how a water official accumulated millions

Gold bars and foreign banknotes found in Ma Chaoqun's Qinhuangdao home. Photo: CFP

A total of 120 million yuan ($19.6 million) in cash, 37 kilograms of gold, and 68 property ownership documents were found stashed away in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. This wasn't found in a warehouse or a bank, this booty was found in a house that belongs to a grass-roots official in charge of the local water supply.

Ma Chaoqun, 47, was the general manager of the State-owned Beidaihe Water Supply Company. Ma has been under investigation for taking bribes and embezzlement since February 13 when he was taken away by Party disciplinary authorities. He was transferred to procuratorate authorities a few months later for further investigation.

Facing the mammoth task of counting stacks of banknotes found in Ma's house, the branch of the Qinhuangdao Bank responsible for counting them gave up counting the banknotes one by one using machines and instead counted up the stacks, a local official was quoted by the Nandu Daily as saying on Friday.

"Some of the notes stored in the boxes have gone moldy," Zhang Guiying, Ma's mother, said at a press conference on November 13. She claimed that all the money found was earned by Ma's late father. But she did not provide any evidence to back up this claim.

This case has prompted speculation about how a low-ranking bureaucrat and head of a water supply company was able to hoard such a huge amount of money.

'No bribe, no water supply'

Beidaihe, less than 300 kilometers to the east of Beijing, is in the coastal district of Qinhuangdao. From 1953 onwards, it was the summer home of the central government. Although the practice of top leaders working in Beidaihe was ended in 2003, it is still a favorite vacation destination of incumbent and retired senior officials.

After joining the Qinhuangdao Water Supply Company in 1985 as a stoker, Ma became manager of its Beidaihe branch in 1997. He was then put in charge of the water supplies to key local bodies including some under the control of the central government, the Nandu Daily reported.

The branch became an independent company owned by the city government in 2011 with Ma appointed as general manager.

The company had never been in trouble before Ma's investigation. It would be inspected by relevant leaders before the summer every year and be commended when the summer ended. Ma himself was rewarded for his "excellent work" in the summer of 2012 by provincial authorities and was dubbed a Model Worker of Qinhuangdao.

Beneath the halo, Ma had been taking advantage of his virtual monopoly on water to make money, as he was the sole decision-maker in charge of whether or not to lay pipes or provide water, an official of the Beidaihe district government was quoted by the Nandu Daily as saying.

"No bribe, no water supply. Smaller bribes than expected, cut the water off," another official said.

The investigation into Ma reportedly began after a tip-off was made in February by a luxury hotel that had been invested in by a Beijing-based State-owned enterprise. Ma demanded the hotel give him a 3-million-yuan bribe, which was later raised to 5 million. This pushed the enterprise to report him to the disciplinary watchdog, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

In addition to this, Ma allegedly threatened to cut off the water supplies to a local hospital, several police stations, a park and a bus terminal, the Beijing-based Caijing magazine reported Friday.

Ma stopped providing water to a branch of the traffic police when a car owned by the Beidaihe Water Supply Company was detained by the local traffic police, according to an employee of the company. "He also refused to lay pipelines for a new building built for the public security bureau in Beidaihe district, forcing the bureau to dig a well by itself," the employee noted.

Another employee said that after Ma's request to meet a senior official of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council was declined by a training center where the official was staying, he cut off the water supply to the center for over a week.

Money was not the only kind of bribe Ma took. Ten years ago, Ma demanded a piece of land in exchange for installing a water supply station for Chitushan village after the village committee was unable to give him as big of a cash bribe as he demanded, a worker at the village committee told the Nandu Daily.

The tiger behind the fly

"Why did nobody tip the discipline watchdog off about his unscrupulous acts earlier?" A local government employee told Caijing, adding that due to Beidaihe's history as the summer refuge of the central government, Ma may have had access to high-ranking officials.

Pointing at a photo of himself posing with a Beijing-based official that was hanging in his office in 2012, Ma boasted that the official was his gandie (godfather), a relative of Ma told the Chinese Business View.

The house that stored Ma's mountains of cash and gold was located in a residential community reserved for city-level officials in which Ma was technically ineligible to buy property. "Even if you are rich enough, you cannot buy it. But how did he make it?" wondered Hu Yingjie, director of the management committee of an economic and technological development zone in Qinhuangdao.

Wang Hong (pseudonym), a senior executive at the Beidaihe Water Supply Company, cited another example of his power and influence. He said one of the leaders of the Qinhuangdao CPC committee who had an argument with Ma came to the company and praised him for his work in front of employees a few days later, despite being a more senior official than Ma, according to news portal thepaper.com.

Not enough restrictions

Hundreds of grass-roots corruption cases, like Ma, have been exposed by governmental disciplinary authorities, particularly in Beijing and Hebei.

A disciplinary inspection group based in Beijing said in July that land acquisition is a major source of corruption at the grass-roots level, the Beijing Morning Post reported. In Hebei, dozens of employees of a local vehicle administration office and a head of a traffic police detachment accepted tens of millions of yuan in bribes, and even a village-level official took about 1 million yuan in bribes in exchange for helping developers grab land, Xinhua reported.

Some minor officials have a tight grip on resources such as electricity, gas or water, or monopolize government services such as vehicle administration, health care or education, which is partly the cause of grass-roots corruption, according to the Hebei disciplinary watchdog.

"A lack of restrictions on the power of officials that control the above mentioned sectors leads to the rampant corruption among local-level officials," said Zhang Sining, a research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.

Global Times

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