Caixin
Nov 20, 2014 02:44 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

The Low Official Found with Towering Pile of Cash, Gold and Properties

A

Ma Chaoqun

(Beijing) – The Communist Party's anti-graft watchdog recently found 37 kilograms of gold, documents showing ownership of 68 properties and 120 million yuan in cash at the home of an official in the northern province of Hebei who is facing a graft inquiry.

Ma Chaoqun, a deputy researcher in the Qinhuangdao City urban management bureau and general manager of the water supply company in the city's Beidaihe district, is facing charges related to taking bribes, embezzlement and misappropriating public funds, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The Chinese public has become used to seeing high officials fall from grace amid a party crackdown on graft that started in late 2012. The public witnessed a soap opera-like saga engulf Bo Xilai, the former boss of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing who aspired to hold even greater power.

It has also seen the party announce it is investigating Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the party's highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and been amazed by reports that an official in the National Energy Administration stashed 100 million yuan – a figure later raised to 200 million yuan – at a home in Beijing.

But Ma's case is different. He is among a number of low-ranking Hebei officials accused of corruption after a recent central government inspection uncovered irregularities. He is receiving a great amount of public attention not just because of the huge amounts of assets involved, but also because he is such a minor official. Graft busters have perhaps summed the situation up best, describing the episodes involving people like Ma as "little official, giant corruption."

She Said, She Said

People in Qinhuangdao – a major coal-importing port city that is also home to the Shanhaiguan tourist area where the Great Wall meets the sea – say the investigation into Ma was triggered by a report from a hotel that said he was using his power over water supplies to ask for a bribe. Ma wanted millions of yuan from a new luxury hotel in exchange for a secure water supply, Xinhua said. A representative of the hotel recorded Ma making the request and sent a copy of the recording to the authorities.

The hotel is the Huamao Sheraton in Beidaihe, local source says. The hotel, which is owned by Beijing Guohua Real Estate Co., opened in 2013.

Employees of the Huamao Sheraton Hotel denied any link to Ma when contacted by Caixin in mid-November.

Ma has for years used his power as head of Beidaihe Water Supply Co. to enrich himself, a local source said. The employee of a local hotel said that Ma once threatened to cut off the water supply if he was not paid.

The Beidaihe Water Supply Co. was established in 2011 under the Qinhuangdao Urban Management Bureau. It is responsible for supplying tourist resorts in the Beidaihe and Nandaihe districts, as well as in new urban areas. The Beidaihe District is home to a summer resort for central government leaders.

A source in Xigucheng Village on the outskirts of Beidaihe said Ma owns a hostel there on land he got almost free from village heads. An employee of the village's party committee confirmed that Ma owns the building and said the land was rented to him for a "relatively low price."

Ma's family has denied he is corrupt. His mother, Zhang Guiying, said at a press conference on November 13 that Ma was being framed by his supervisor, Ma Zhuang, the chief of the city's urban management bureau. She said Ma Zhuang joined the bureau in May 2013 and has not gotten along with Ma Chaoqun. The two had even had physical confrontations, she said.

On November 14, Ma Chaoqun's sister-in-law, Meng Qiuhong, publicly accused Ma Zhuang of corruption and said he framed their relative to prevent his own graft from being exposed.

Zhang and Meng also said that Ma Chaoqun did not own any of the assets.

"All of this money and property was seized from the home of Ma's parents and accumulated in a legitimate way by Ma Chaoqun's late father, Ma Bingzhong," Zhang said. She said Ma Bingzhong died more than a year ago.

Caixin contacted prosecutors in Qinhuangdao and in the Beidaihe district, but they refused to comment on the case, saying the investigation is still underway.

Zhang and Meng said that prosecutors raided apartments owned by Ma's parents in February. Ma's younger brother and sister were also taken away by investigators and had many of their assets seized. The authorities have not told them where Ma is.

Suspected Gang Links

Ma, 47, is a native of Qinhuangdao and has spent his entire career in the water supply company. In 1997, he was transferred to the Beidaihe District to head the water company's branch there.

In January 2011, the firm became an independent company and Ma was named its general manager. The next year he was promoted to deputy researcher in the Qinhuangdao Urban Management Bureau, making him a junior official. Meanwhile, he continued his work in the water company.

Many of Ma's relatives also work for the local water system, including his younger brother, Ma Chongqun, and sister-in-law, Meng Qiuhong. The brother was once a general manager of the water company in Shanhaiguan District and he is also facing a corruption inquiry,

Since Beidaihe is a resort visited by many central government officials, Ma had opportunities to build good connection with "important figures," local sources said.

People who know Ma describe him as irritable, and many subordinates said they have been scolded or even beaten by him. Employees also say Ma frequently took deductions from their salaries and was often stingy. "He begrudged ordering good meals," one said.

Ma is also suspected of involvement in gang-style crimes because prosecutors found he owned illegal knives, a source close to the matter said. Ma's relatives said a total of 200 prosecutors and policemen were sent to arrest him. His younger sister, Ma Qingru, was also detained by police for illegally owning guns.

The anti-corruption watchdog has referred to Ma's case as "little official, giant corruption," a phenomenon that is widespread in Hebei. Provincial officials say investigators have uncovered bribery cases involving a city traffic police officer who amassed more than 10 million yuan; misconduct by social security bureau officials resulting in a pension fund losing 20 million yuan; and village officials taking large bribes in land-transfer deals.

A Good Doctor?

At the November 13 press conference, Ma's mother defended her son and said the huge amount of assets do not belong to Ma. Zhang Guiying said her late husband was a doctor practicing Chinese medicine who had a knack for investing and this was how the family grew wealthy. Ma knew little about the family's assets, she said.

Zhang said Ma Bingzhong was a well-known doctor who often went to Beijing to treat senior officials. He started buying real estate in the 1960s and owned many properties, including six small apartments in downtown Beijing, Zhang said. Her husband also invested in a mining company in 1983 and sold his shares in it for about 60 million yuan.

In an interview with Caixin, Zhang refused to provide more details regarding the family's assets. "My husband is dead and nobody knows clears about the assets. Many documents and receipts have been burned," she said.

Zhang said her daughter, Ma Qingru, knows more about the assets because she worked for her father in property investment. Ma Qingru has been detained and investigators seized financial records, she said.

Zhang also said that her husband was unwilling to put the money in the bank because having it readily available made spending and lending easier. This meant storing the cash at home for many years, even though "many bills rotted."

The China Youth Daily in Beijing newspaper cited a prosecutor involved in the Ma investigation as saying that "the assets have no links with Ma's father."

A former colleague of Ma Bingzhong said he was a normal doctor employed by the Qinhuangdao Environment and Sanitation Bureau. He "never heard about (Ma Bingzhong) investing in mines and offering treatments in Beijing."

(Rewritten by Han Wei)

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