Zhou Yongkang, China's former domestic security chief, stands between his police escorts as he listens to his sentence in a court in Tianjin, China, in this still image taken from video provided by China Central Television and shot on June 11, 2015. Zhou was sentenced to life imprisonment, deprived of his political rights for life and his personal assets confiscated, for accepting bribes, abusing power and deliberately disclosing state secrets. Many of his relatives were also accused of corruption, Chinese media reported. (Reuters/China Central Television)

In China, corruption is definitely a family affair.

The Chinese government announced this month it is making a renewed attempt to tackle an issue that has plagued one-party rule here: The way relatives of some top officials have used their political ties to amass fabulous wealth.

State media says that four out of every five corruption cases brought against officials in this country involve family members.

Now, the government is expanding a pilot scheme to tackle what it calls “family corruption,” as part of a far-reaching and popular crackdown on graft under President Xi Jinping.

The decision was reached on April 18 by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform, led by Xi. It came just three days after the Panama Papers revealed that relatives of seven current or former senior Chinese leaders had links to offshore firms — news that was seen as hugely awkward for the Party and was firmly censored here.

“Family corruption” is a very sensitive issue in China, something the Communist Party recognizes as undermining its legitimacy in many people’s eyes.

In 2012, Bloomberg News and the New York Times both earned the ire of the Party, and subsequently faced problems in obtaining visas for their staff, after reporting on the family wealth of Xi and former Premier Wen Jiabao respectively.

Under a pilot scheme that began in Shanghai last year and is now being expanded to four other provinces or regions, officials’ spouses are to be banned from all business activity, while children and children-in-law can’t conduct business in the region for which their parents have jurisdiction.

Officials will also be barred from getting jobs for their spouses and children.

But even the state-owned Global Times newspaper couldn’t help but inject a healthy dose of skepticism into its coverage of the news.

“These kind of restrictions are nothing new,” it wrote. “The central leadership has issued at least 20 such documents since the 1980s, but most of them have been proven ineffective.”

The paper quoted experts as saying the specific restrictions being proposed this time had more chance of success than previous attempts. But it also underlined the scale of the problem.

"Behind nearly every corrupt official there are businessmen," it quoted He Wenkai, a deputy procurator-general in the southern province of Guanxi, as saying. "It's easier for bribers to approach officials' relatives and it's easier to hide giving them bribes."

Officials’ children, known disparagingly as the guan er dai, often do business secretly and easily win public contracts, one was quoted as admitting.

Zhu Lijia, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the pilot program had been expanded from Shanghai because it was found to have been successful there, and added the decision did not have much to do with the Panama Papers.

“Experience shows that a lot of corruption cases involve exchange of interests and collusion between officials and businesspeople through their relatives,” he said. “It is one of the most difficult aspects in the fight against corruption. So what we need to do is to have a set of laws and regulations in place to curb such practices.”

Han Zheng, party chief in Shanghai, said the city had investigated 1,802 officials under the new scheme, found 182 violating the rules, dismissed ten, and transferred ten more, while one resigned and three were investigated for corruption.

Similar rules will now be applied in Beijing, Guangdong, Chongqing and Xinjiang.

Under existing rules, party members who hold public office are not allowed to run businesses or invest in companies, the newspaper of the anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection, reminded its readers Monday. Ordinary party members can do so.

But in its article, the Global Times also posed a fundamental question that strikes at the heart of the problem of tackling corruption in a one-party state.

“The root reason for family corruption is an improper power structure,” Li Yongzhong, former deputy director of the China Discipline Inspection and Supervision Institute was quoted as saying.

“The chief of an organ usually has decision-making, executive and supervision power, which easily leads to the abuse of power.”

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