They gathered in a local public plaza on the morning of July 22. Raising clenched right fists, 50 Communist Party officials from the southwestern China county of Qingshen vowed to sever ties with their sworn “relatives.” Another additional 300 promised not to adopt godfathers, godmothers, godsons, and goddaughters.
Fictive kinship—a term used by scholars to describe kinship not based on blood or marriage ties—refers to the time-honored Chinese tradition of adopting relatives, often nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, and godchildren. But the idea has been put to ill use in communist China, and such informal ties have become fertile grounds for corruption.
The move by officials in the province of Sichuan seems to be a unique, local gesture in support of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign. It’s unclear if similar activities are being held across China—but the phenomenon of helping out sworn relatives is well-entrenched in the Chinese political system, and the public is familiar and furious with the practice.
In Qingshen, the local Party leader led the officials to ink their name on a large red board bearing the words of their oath after they recited it. Each official also signed a letter of commitment. By end August, any Qingshen official caught tapping their adopted “relatives” to get rich would be duly punished, according to Beijing News, a state-run publication.
While Chinese citizens largely back the clamp down on misbehaving officials, many were unimpressed with the Qingshen county ceremony, despite its professed earnestness, and took to Chinese social media to vent their frustrations.
“You take an oath at a meeting. And then you do as you please afterwards. This sort of thing has proved useless in the last decade, yet they’re still doing it,” wrote the editor of the state-run Yangcheng Evening News under his online moniker “Long Xiong” on Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo.
“Morons! Does not having a goddaughter mean that there’s no corruption? And is one instantly corrupt for having a goddaughter? What an affront to the Chinese people and the Chinese culture,” wrote another Weibo user.
Fictive kinship features prominently in stories and traditions from ancient China. The best known sworn brothers are Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei who took an oath of fraternity near the end of the Eastern Han dynasty, and stuck faithfully to their vows. Their story has since been upheld as the gold standard of conduct amongst sworn siblings.
Party officials are more interested in the gold that can be made from their adopted siblings. In 2012, it was found that former deputy director of the People’s Congress in Qingshen county Liu Zeli and his “sworn brother” businessman had been exploiting their “kinship” to amass wealth; Liu was found guilty of accepting bribes worth 1.8 million yuan (about $289,985) and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
One particular infamous case involving fictive kin was that of Yi Junqing, a former top communist theoretician at the the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau who once worked for ex-Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin. Yi, a married man, took on many “sworn sisters” and had affairs with them, according to Chinese Internet portal Sina. Yi was exposed when a female postdoctoral fellow working at his bureau published a lengthy article detailing their licentious history in 2003.
Some Chinese netizens seized the recent Qingshen county oath ceremony to take a jibe at the Party itself.
The officials “also took an oath when they joined the Chinese Communist Party to ‘serve the people.’ But nothing has happened since then,” wrote netizen “Jing Chuan Lin Xi” on Weibo.
All would-be Communist Party members are required to attend a formal ceremony and swear an oath before the Party’s flag before they are inducted.