For decades, Xu Shiping was a loyal functionary in the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party, a key nerve center for secret Party documents and logistics. He began his career there in 1981 and worked his way up the ranks to become the Party secretary in charge of the finances, vehicles, and well-appointed residences enjoyed by top officials. But in 2014, he was abruptly shunted to deputy director of the archives.
Xu’s career continued to slide: In March of this year, at age 60, he was dismissed as an archivist, and his official biography vanished from the State Archives website. His present employment status is unclear, Chinese media reports say.
Xu isn’t the only one. At least a dozen other current and former top cadres in the General Office appear to have been quietly disposed of in recent months, according to Chinese media reports. The silent cleansing is likely part of the campaign to rid the office of what state media has described as the malignant influence of its former chief, Ling Jihua. Ling was a top aide to the former Party leader before he was identified as part of an internal conspiracy that endangered the regime.
A purge of the General Office, even if done without fanfare, is likely a necessary move by Xi Jinping to establish his authority in the face of an entrenched network of power, generally grouped around former Party chief Jiang Zemin.
The purge would fit a pattern similar to that undertaken by Xi across a range of sectors, including the security apparatus, the oil industry, the financial sector, the military, and state media. That such personnel arrangements be conducted in relative secrecy would be fitting for an agency that controls the Party’s secrets.
Ling Jihua, 59, spent nearly 18 years in the General Office, during which time he constructed a massive network of influence, according to Chinese media reports. He spent five years as the head of the agency, and as top aide to the former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, Ling held a position equivalent to White House chief of staff.
This elite background made it all the more shocking when Ling was fingered as one of a group of four top officials who were said to have formed a clique and conspired against the leadership.
The downfall began after Ling’s son died under suspicious circumstances in a Ferrari accident in Beijing in 2012. Ling was first transferred to the United Front Work Department, the Party’s political warfare agency, and then in December 2014 placed under investigation. In July 2015, he was formally arrested and is now being prosecuted by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.
But it was only relatively recently that Ling’s claimed conspiracy with other top officials came to light. In the words of Party leader Xi Jinping in 2015, Ling, along with the former security boss, a top general, and the shrewd Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, “carried out political conspiracies to wreck and split the Party.”
Ling’s alleged co-conspirators were raised up through the ranks by Jiang Zemin to become some of the most powerful men in China. They thus owed their loyalty to Jiang, who managed to wield vast influence for over a decade after his formal retirement in 2002 through the network these individuals helped lead. Xi has been seeking to dislodge Jiang’s political clients from key posts since assuming the mantle of Party leader in 2012.
Given the sensitivity of the General Office, often called the inner sanctum of the Party, handling important paperwork, security classifications, and logistical services for the Politburo and Party’s Secretariat, Ling wielded enormous power and would have been in a formidable position to undermine the leadership.
The offenses he has been officially charged with do not extend to plotting a coup, but include somewhat more pedestrian charges of stealing state secrets, accepting bribes, and indulging in sexual promiscuity.
The forced turnover of key staff at the General Office is being conducted in a far gentler manner than typical anti-corruption investigations over the last several years, where provincial officials can find themselves escorted away by investigators while attending a daughter’s wedding, for instance, or be disappeared just after a public event, with no prior notice.
Most top-ranking General Office staff were not expelled outright on corruption charges, but instead appear to have been cycled out in two stages: first, moved on to other, conspicuously lower-ranking departments, and then let go from those positions with no public explanation. In a number of cases, their profiles also vanish from official websites.
Caixin, a business publication that has reported aggressively on the anti-corruption campaign, published the most comprehensive table of those who have been relieved from the General Office. None had reached the customary retirement age of 65, and many are still in their late 50s and early 60s, usually the prime of a Chinese official’s career. All of the demotions and apparent retirements took place after the Ling Jihua scandal erupted in 2012.
Several of the half-dozen former General Office bureau chiefs or deputies who lost their jobs this year shared a fate similar to Xu Shiping at the state archives.
Zhao Shengxuan, for instance, a former General Office deputy director, was posted to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in May 2013, and was unexpectedly dismissed from that post in February this year. Like Xu, his official biography was scrubbed from the CASS website, according to The Paper, a semi-official news website.
Wang Zhongtian, another ex-deputy director who enjoyed a fruitful career of 16 years in the General Office, was put out to pasture in the South-North Water Diversion Office in January 2015 and lost that job in February this year for no explained reason.
Others appear to have joined forces with Xi. Chen Ruiping rose from a grassroots cadre position in the General Office in 1974 to head the agency’s Mao Memorial Bureau in 2006. After 40 years of service, she was transferred to the Party’s internal disciplinary agency in 2014, and this March placed in charge of the inspection team that probes the Chinese regime’s judiciary and cultural heritage agency.
Then there are officials like Huo Ke, the 55-year-old former head of the General Office’s security bureau. He was dispatched to the National Tourism Administration in December 2014—a pointed demotion—before being set upon by Party investigators in January the following year.
While Chinese state media has been reticent about what’s driving the personnel changes, Hong Kong media has offered colorful theories and details.
According to the March edition of The Trend, a Hong Kong magazine that carries sometimes accurate political rumors from Beijing, the purge of the General Office is far more extensive than official Party media has let on.
Wang Qishan, the head of the Party’s anti-corruption agency, had personally led an anti-corruption task force in an early sweep of the General Office in February 2013, according to The Trend. Wang’s investigation team concluded that it was “very sinister, very brazen, and very corrupt,” and designated several bureaus “disaster zones.”
The investigation found that loyalists in the General Office regularly furnished Ling Jihua with highly classified documents even after he was removed in June 2012, The Trend says.
This information is impossible to confirm and has not been reported in official Chinese media. Often, Hong Kong media outlets like The Trend parlay genuine tip-offs from sources deep in the Party apparatus with imaginative additions, filling in the details not provided by their sources.
There is broad corroboration of some elements of the story. According to state mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency, for instance, Ling had come into possession of over 2,700 papers that hold highly classified state and Party “core secrets.” Many media earlier this year also reported that Ling Jihua’s brother, Ling Wancheng, now in the United States, may have provided a trove of secret documents obtained by his brother to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Party investigators also found that the General Office “illegally reallocated” about 3 billion to 4.2 billion yuan (about $460 million to $650 million) of government funding annually to award bonuses to staff. Nursing and senior homes run by the General Office, for the benefit of retired officials, had become “nests of debauchery.” The General Office had even “severely sabotaged” some police and public security agencies.
Later, The Trend says, the Wang-led investigation team mandated that all General Office staff, including all newcomers, make a special pledge of allegiance to Party Central. The first item on the list was “absolute loyalty.”
UPDATE: On April 21, the Discipline Inspection and Supervision News, the official newspaper of the Party’s anti-corruption agency, reported that 103 officials from the General Office have been purged for disciplinary infractions since an inspection team was stationed there a year ago.