In Depth: The Rise and Fall of ‘Two-Faced’ Zhao Zhengyong
A documentary aired by China’s state broadcaster shortly after the Lunar New Year holiday brought unease to officialdom in northwest China’s Shaanxi province as some saw it as the darkening clouds that presage a storm.
The 44-minute program by the Central Television Station recounted a tough campaign that started in 2014 to demolish some luxury villas that were illegally built in the nature preserve zones in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi. Local officials repeatedly agreed to comply with orders from the central government, including six decrees signed directly by President Xi Jinping, but didn’t carry them out.
A number of current and former Shaanxi officials spoke to the camera, disclosing juicy details or making confessions. But it was the man who didn’t appear that stood out. Zhao Zhengyong, the provincial Communist Party chief from December 2012 to March 2016, was the top executive in Shaanxi when the central government ordered the crackdown.
The documentary didn’t identify who should take the most responsibility for the crackdown’s struggles but accused the “then-major leader” of the Shaanxi provincial party committee of ignoring orders and turning a blind eye to illegal construction and secret deals.
It didn’t take long for the full weight of the government to fall on Zhao. A week after the documentary, the graft-busting Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced he was under investigation, citing “severe violations of discipline and law,” which often refers to corruption. Less than a year earlier, Zhao had retired as a deputy chairman of the Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee under the National People's Congress, China’s parliament.
Born into a miner’s family in Anhui province, 68-year-old Zhao climbed the bureaucratic ladder from steel factory worker to top provincial leader, along the way winning a reputation for boldness but also ruthlessness. He was the first provincial-level official in 2019 to fall in Beijing’s sweeping, years-long anti-corruption campaign. He is also the eighth senior provincial official in resources-rich Shaanxi since late 2012 to come under graft investigation.
Authorities have yet to disclose details of Zhao’s alleged violations, but investigators’ focus apparently isn’t limited to his neglect of Beijing’s demolition orders and disregard for environmental risks.
The Zhao probe set off an avalanche that swept over his family members, fellow officials and business associates, shedding light on an extensive graft network. Caixin’s investigations found that the reach of Zhao’s family extended into Shaanxi’s oil, coal, property and finance sectors as he installed associates in major state companies such as Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum (Group) Co. Ltd., Shaanxi Coal and Chemical Industry Group Co. and Shaanxi Gas Group Co. Ltd.
Illegal profits earned by the Zhao family using his power amounted to hundreds of millions of yuan (100 million yuan = $14.5 million), sources close to the matters told Caixin.
The aftershocks of Zhao’s downfall are still reverberating through the officialdom of Shaanxi. Caixin learned that more than 100 middle- and high-level officials in the province have been summoned by authorities in relation to Zhao’s investigation.
Shortly after Zhao’s detention, a CCDI-backed journal published an article criticizing Zhao as a “shameless two-faced person,” referring to the lip service he paid to the central orders. Ironically, Zhao penned an article three years ago in the same journal calling for a crackdown on two-faced people in the government.
“On one hand, those people violate discipline for personal benefits,” Zhao wrote. “On the other hand, they always try to defuse their anxiety by building connections and cultivating allies.”
The two-faced man
After he started as a metal worker in 1970 at the state-owned Maanshan Iron & Steel Co. in his hometown, Zhao’s career later switched to a bureaucratic track as he gradually climbed up the administrative ladder in the company. In 1982, he was appointed secretary-general of the Maanshan city committee of the Communist Youth League, a reservoir of young cadres, starting a career in officialdom.
Zhao was among the most promising young officials in Maanshan and rose quickly in the city government. People familiar with Zhao said his early government career was helped by his father-in-law, a former official. But by his late 30s, Zhao’s resume was still unimpressive. He spent nearly 10 years as a mid-level city official in Maanshan until he was promoted in 1993 to party chief of Huangshan city, also in Anhui.
In 2001, then 50-year-old Zhao made another big step up when he was transferred to the resources-rich Shaanxi province as provincial law enforcement chief.
Zhao was “a tall guy who likes to smile,” said a retired Shaanxi official. “He is decisive and capable.”
Shaanxi has some of of China’s largest reserves of coal, oil and natural gas, making it a battleground in early 2000s for deep-pocketed investors and brokers and a cradle for disputes and crimes. Zhao’s iron-fisted approach to fighting violations won him a reputation.
In 2005, Zhao was promoted to deputy governor of Shaanxi, taking charge of the province’s lucrative energy sector. Five years later, he became governor and rose to party chief in two years.
As he rose to higher positions, Zhao’s arrogant character became more obvious, sources said.
“He was high-handed as the governor,” said a mid-level provincial official who spoke only on condition of anonymity. “He made decisions on his own without reporting to the party committee. And when he became the party chief, he liked to intervene in everything.”
Zhao seized a tight grip power in Shaanxi and put his trusted aides in key positions in the provincial government, the official said. “He formed small circles with his allies while excluding dissidents,” he said.
According to the official, Zhao forced a senior provincial official out of office shortly after he became governor because of disagreements and suppressed another official at the Water Affairs Department who declined to follow his orders.
At the same time, Zhao showed great tolerance for his allies. On Zhao’s order, Zhao Hongzhuan, a former senior Xi’an official who was accused of fraud in local land deals, was asked only to make apology without any further punishment, according to the retired official.
In June 2018, Zhao Hongzhuan was sentenced to 12 years in jail for taking 25 million yuan ($3.6 million) of bribes and for abusing power in local land deals.
Zhao also turned a blind eye to another associate, Hu Zhiqiang, a former party chief of Yulin city in Shaanxi, despite repeated public complaints about Hu’s violations. Hu was placed under investigation for graft last year and now faces prosecution on corruption charges. A source close to the prosecutor said Hu allegedly received more than 100 million yuan in bribes.
Sources close to the Shaanxi government said Zhao also offered a public endorsement to Wei Minzhou, a former Xi’an party chief who has been under investigation for corruption and connections to the disgraced central government official Ling Jihua. Wei was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes totaling more than 109 million yuan in November.
Zhao also helped his hometown fellow Chen Guoqiang to rise to the post of deputy Shaanxi governor, sources said. Chen was dismissed in March shortly after Zhao’s downfall.
Zhao’s three circles
People familiar with Shaanxi officialdom said Zhao has three circles of close allies — his hometown fellows, schoolmates and tennis partners.
Zhao’s fondness for tennis is well known in Shaanxi, and many officials practiced the game hard to get close to him, sources said.
During Zhao’s tenure, an annual official tennis competition was held with sponsorship from major local companies.
A list of 70 people from Zhao’s tennis team reviewed by Caixin included a number of senior officials in the province. Many of them won promotion during Zhao’s tenure, Caixin found.
Two separate local government sources told Caixin that Zhao exercised strong control over local appointments and installed his aides in key positions in charge of official promotion and selection across the province.
Official appointments followed Zhao’s orders without routine administrative procedures and without required reviews of candidates’ backgrounds, the sources said.
In February 2017, a CCDI inspection of the Shaanxi government concluded that 16 out of 28 rounds of official appointments in the province since 2014 didn’t follow required procedures.
“Zhao turned the local government into his own tool and made party officials his private aides,” a local official said. “It extremely poisoned Shaanxi’s political environment.”
Contact reporter Han Wei (email@example.com)
Read more of Caixin’s reporting on Zhao Zhengyong’s graft network.
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