Beijing is having a hard time convincing officials they shouldn’t abandon China

June 9, 2014
June 9, 2014

Chinese state media recently reported what was meant to be another coup for president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign: a crackdown on thousands of “naked” officials—those who send their family, and often their wealth, abroad, and remain behind. According to Xinhua, 866 officials in Guangdong province were demoted and another 200 asked their families to return to China.

China’s battle against elite families moving abroad remains an uphill one, which reflects a much broader public relations crisis for the country’s ruling party. For the Chinese public, the fact that so many government officials—whose official salaries are low—can afford to send their families to live, and their children to study, in America, Canada, or Europe is yet more proof of corruption in the government. Some also use their emigrated relatives as a way to funnel wealth abroad, often through real estate.

Naked officials or luo guan—called that because they remain in China for years in government jobs while their families are in another country entirely—are also embarrassing public proof that even those within the Communist Party are looking for a way out. “These officials have lost confidence in the party and the country,” Chinese economist Zhao Hai Jun wrote on his blog (link in Chinese) in response to the news.

As we’ve reported, life as a Chinese official isn’t so great these days—everything from first-class flights to smoking has been barred and hundreds have been caught up in an anti-corruption dragnet.

At the same time, the number of wealthy Chinese families (whether headed by a government official or not) looking to relocate abroad appears to be going up. A survey published last week by the Hurun report and the Visas Consulting Group in Shanghai found that over half of 141 Chinese families with $1 million or more in assets, had or were planning to emigrate. They cited better education options and avoiding pollution and unsafe food as their main reasons.

No wonder then, the number of naked officials is way up. The People’s Bank of China estimated that up to 18,000 officials had left China between the 1990s and 2008. But over the past five years, it’s estimated that more than 1 million (link in Chinese) officials have sent family abroad or left themselves. According to one Hong Kong immigration agency, one third of the 500 applications it saw last year were from mainland Chinese officials.

The slew of demotions in Guangdong is only the latest attempt to stem the flow. In January, the communist party barred luo gan from getting promotions; in February, another directive instructed “Bring back your family, or retire early.”

That measure might backfire entirely. In May, an official in Guangdong retired when asked to make that choice. In recent weeks another official publicly gave up his job rather than force his family to return to mainland China. He told Xinhua, “I told my parents and my wife about the new regulations of the central and provincial governments, but my wife preferred to live in Hong Kong. As family life is equally important to me, I decided to support my wife and give up my job.”

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