From a humble birth in the mountains of South China to his sensational execution in Beijing this week, the story of Cheng Kejie sheds light on a world of lust, greed and infighting in mainland China’s corridors of power.
And the moral of the tale that ended in his death — most likely from a bullet in the head — is “keep your back covered”, an Australian businessman who knew Cheng said on Friday.
John Coulter is one of the few of Cheng’s acquaintances prepared to talk about the former vice chairman of the body that runs parliament, and now famous as the most senior official to be executed for corruption in five decades of Communist rule.
Cheng was executed on Thursday for taking US$5 million in bribes as head of the government in the southwestern province of Guangxi, a haven of drug dealers, smugglers and human traffickers.
Coulter, who has worked in the region for more than a decade on aid projects and as a market researcher, met Cheng on several occasions in China and Australia, even visiting his home village in the mountains of Guangxi during one business trip.
He paints a picture of a jovial and polite man with limited abilities but a taste for the high life; a man who reigned supreme in rampantly corrupt Guangxi but was out of his depth without friends or influence once elevated to Beijing.
“There’s a lesson here for every Chinese, which is don’t be on the outer if you’re going to be corrupt,” Coulter said by telephone from his home in Brisbane, Australia.
“Get inside, be part of the power establishment and then you can rip off much more than $5 million.”
Cheng, a member of the Zhuang ethnic minority, was born in Gaungxi’s Shanglin county and cut his bureaucratic teeth in the railway administration from 1957-1986 in the city of Liuzhou, which Coulter described as “extremely corrupt”.
But it was after his appointment to Guangxi’s top government post in 1989 that Cheng conspired with his mistress Li Ping to use his position to line his pockets, according to state media.
Li acted as an agent for Cheng to take bribes in exchange for selling state land cheaply, awarding development contracts and commodities quotas and promoting colleagues.
Such was his influence that a photograph in his company could help to seal a deal, said Coulter, who knew Cheng for five years.
“Just the fact that people working with me realised that Cheng Kejie was patronizing me always stood me in good stead,” he said.
But ultimately, it was Cheng’s weakness for women which led to his downfall, according to Coulter.
“He was a playboy,” he said, citing a trip to Australia when Cheng, 67, who was married, had an open affair with his twenty-something Chinese interpreter.
Coulter said he did not doubt Cheng took the bribes, but he blamed Li for soliciting the money and for continuing to abuse Cheng’s power in Guangxi after his move to Beijing.
Cheng’s affair with Li, who was married to the son of a former Guangxi government chairman, also won him powerful enemies who plotted against him once he moved to Beijing, he said.
Li was sentenced to life imprisonment, escaping the death penalty by giving investigators details of Cheng’s crimes and by helping to recover their booty.
“If Cheng had stayed on as governor in Guangxi, this wouldn’t have happened, but he was promoted way above his capabilities,” said Coulter.
“When he got to Beijing he had this very high profile job without much power. He was really an easy target. When the local politics of Guangxi spilled over into Beijing, there was no alternative but to prosecute him.”
Coulter said contacts in Guangxi had been reluctant to talk about the case, beyond echoing state media headlines.
“There’ll be a backlash — anyone on the take before will be very careful,” he said.
“Yet all the wheeler dealers I know just think ‘I better make sure I’ve paid my power brokers so I don’t get my dirty washing hung out’.”
“And there won’t be any race to get to Beijing at that level any more.”