Old Version

Arts and Grafts

As corruption crackdowns continue, bribery is becoming more clandestine, with officials accepting gifts of artworks or selling their own to bribers. The loopholes in the art market need to be closed, experts say

By Zhou Qunfeng Updated May.1

On January 15, Tang Shuangning, 69, former Chairman of China Everbright Group, the State-owned financial institution set up in Hong Kong in 1983, was arrested by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) for receiving priceless calligraphy works, paintings, commemorative coins and cash gifts, the SPP released.  

A calligraphy aficionado, Tang said he was more of a poet and artist than a financial expert with modest professional knowledge, Chinese media The Paper reported on the same day.  

During his tenure at Everbright from 2007 to 2017, Tang garnered a considerable number of titles such as calligrapher, painter, poet, essayist and researcher from renowned institutes including the China Central Institute for Culture and History, Yinglian Society of China and Li Keran Academy of Painting. He often displayed his own works in exhibitions.  

Tang was not alone. Zhang Lingping, former Secretary of the Communist Party of China’s municipal committee in Dingxi, Gansu Province, collected more than 40 paintings and calligraphy works priced between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of yuan. Ni Fa’ke, former Deputy Governor of Anhui Province, owned piles of jade pieces. Zou Jianxin, former Director of the Bureau of Development in Lishui, Zhejiang Province, crammed innumerable expensive paintings, porcelains and jade items into a 40-square-meter underground chamber.  

As bribery is more perilous and costly given the country’s ever-tightening supervision, clandestine methods of corruption are on the rise, though in more diverse and sophisticated ways. Expensive cameras, calligraphy, paintings and rare antiques replace cash, limousines and villas to form the mainstream of today’s clandestine corruption, the Chinese Discipline Inspection and Supervision Newspaper reported on October 30, 2018.  

“The new trend of bribery is responding to officials’ favorite hobbies, which are more viable when cloaked under cultural elegance,” Mao Zhaohui, an anti-graft expert at the Renmin University of China told NewsChina.  

Hobby Horses 
Obsessed with antiques, Wang Zhengqiang, former director of the Research Center on Scientific, Technological and Economic Strategies, Guizhou Academy of Sciences, was sentenced to six years in prison and fined 500,000 yuan (US$69,650) in July 2023, the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) released on October 11 the same year.  

Wang confessed he was obsessed with valuable antiques, using his official vehicle and his work hours in pursuit of his hobby. His collections filled three residences.  

“I was used to a frugal life. My vests cost no more than 20 yuan (US$3) each and I usually bought 10 to wear for many years. In my daily life, I’d hesitate to eat an egg at breakfast. How did it come to pass that I should receive bribes for my addiction to bronzes and ceramics?” he said, in a tearful confession on the CCDI website on October 11, 2023.  

An anonymous Party discipline inspection official from Henan Province told NewsChina that due to the stringent corruption crackdown in recent years, the game between power and wealth can no longer be played overtly, so bribes are being funneled through transactions of cultural and art works instead.  

“For all bribers, the only question is not how principled the officials they target are, but rather how deeply they are dedicated to their hobbies,” he said.  

Liu Yajun, the former director of the Justice Bureau in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, stood trial on May 10, 2022 for corruption. He had accepted bribes consisting of 167 jade pieces, 31 art works, 14 luxury watches and 25 calligraphies and paintings, the People’s Daily reported.  

According to one of those involved in the trial, jade and watches worked better than cash to win Liu’s favor.  

Others took notice of officials’ hobbies. Meng Gang, former Deputy Executive of the Bank of Changsha, Hunan Province, loved sailing at Fisherman’s Wharf in Changsha. His yacht and berth charges totaling over 500,000 yuan (US$69,650) were paid by businesspeople betting on his power. 

Fame is another way to entice officials. To approach authorities, some bribers finance photo and art exhibitions or publish books for officials who fancy themselves a writer or artist.  

An entrepreneur surnamed Cao from a photo and video company in Beijing spent more than 5.8 million yuan (US$810,000) to fund four photo exhibitions including ones in Italy, France and the UK for Qin Yuhai, former Party Secretary of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress in Henan Province. Cao’s firm even made a documentary to profile Qin, The Paper reported on July 7, 2016.  

“It explains why so many people, no matter how awful their works were, still sell all their works. These titles bestowed on them from cultural and art societies enable them to rake in the money,” Zhou Yibo, former chairman of the Calligraphers’ Association in Shaanxi Province, wrote in the People’s Daily in December 2014.  

Camouflage Corruption 
Without stringent regulations and rules, China’s cultural and art markets are replete with exhibitions and auctions held to camouflage corruption.  

Liu Youju, president of the Chinese People’s Academy of Calligraphy in Guangdong Province, refused an offer from a unopened gallery where the curator-to-be promised to sell his works and pay him half the revenue.  

“The curator was the son of a city official who came to me for a deal involving some businesspeople who promised to buy my works at high prices. But I immediately realized this was a money laundering scheme so I refused without hesitation,” Liu told NewsChina.  

Beyond galleries and art exhibitions, counterfeit antiques can be used in auction scams. 
On January 8, 2014, legal website Chinacourt.org revealed two sophisticated ways to bribe via counterfeit antiques. One is to auction a fake antique belonging to an official, where the briber is always the final bidder. The other is for dealers to sell over-inflated fakes to the bribers. The dealer and the bribed official share the money.  

“Lacking transaction receipts, it’s hard to connect the counterfeit business with corruption, meaning the punishment for anyone involved could be nothing more serious than selling fake antiques,” an anonymous prosecutor told NewsChina. But he said that with advanced technologies, investigators can still uncover such schemes.  

Anti-Corruption Drive 
According to Liu Youju, in some countries, incumbent and retired officials are prohibited from receiving art products. If the gifts cannot be refused, they should submit them as state assets. 

“When a mayor of Florence, Italy received my works as a present, instead of keeping them as his own, he handed them over to his country,” Liu told NewsChina.  

In auctions, it is standard practice internationally that all parties, including the creator or owner and the successful bidder, pay tax on the sale, and the process is strictly monitored so there is no corruption, Liu said.  

He said it is imperative to regulate China’s chaotic art market by blocking dubious transactions that are a front for corruption. Efforts should not only be shared between cultural and tax administrations but also by artists, Liu added.  

Over the past few years, corruption involving books, albums, pricey artworks, antiques, jade and even fixing art competitions have become increasingly hard to distinguish, Ren Kangting, member of the Standing Committee of the Discipline Inspection Commission of Guizhou Province, wrote in an article published on the CCDI website on September 21, 2023.  

According to corruption expert Mao, US federal laws define bribery as anything of value or overestimated value given to any officials in order to influence their public duties. Whereas, in China, bribery in forms of antiques and artworks needs to be evaluated before the suspect can be charged.  

So it is hard to decide on the seriousness of corruption when it can either be dependent on how much the officials pocketed or how the articles are valued in the current market, given artworks’ frequent price fluctuations, the CCDI newspaper reported in late 2022.  

Liu Weiyuan, a lawyer from the Guangzhou branch of Beijing Dacheng Law Office, told NewsChina that for officials who are suspected of being bribed but without knowing what the object was worth, market value should be used in assessing the level of their crime. But for those who knew the value of what they were given, the transaction amounts should be used when judging them.  

With the rise of bribery in the culture and art sectors, Mao advised the government to improve legal provisions, particularly those concerning power rent-seeking and benefit transfer. Retired officials should not receive honorary academic or cultural titles or awards, and care should be taken if they exhibit artworks or write books.  

No matter how difficult, the law should be much more robust, especially for companies involved in money laundering and bribery, Guangdong’s biweekly Nanfang reported last year. “All violations should be filed and punished, so that investigations can be advanced to uproot clandestine corruption more easily.” 

Tang Shuangning, former chairman of Everbright Group, was arrested in January 2024 for receiving expensive works of art after a corruption probe (Photo by IC)