The annual National People’s Congress of 5,000 or so lawmakers and political advisers is arguably one of the world’s more expensive government events. The two-week gathering costs taxpayers around Rmb200 million ($33.3 million), according to Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po newspaper, and that excludes expenditure on security.
But this year Xi Jinping’s austerity drive is being felt throughout the event. Gone are the flowers that normally await delegates as they enter their hotel rooms. So too are the fragrant hostesses who flutter around the event pouring hot tea. Instead attendees must pick up bottled water marked with their names – and a second bottle won’t be available unless they have finished the first.
Some of the more eye-catching delegates are conspicuous by their absence too after Liu Yingxia, once dubbed “the most beautiful member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (or CPPCC) was expelled from the top advisory body last month.
Liu’s dismissal – without official explanation – has stoked a host of online rumours and a media frenzy.
Born in 1972 to a military family in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, Liu joined the army aged 15. She was demobilised five years later although 21CN Business Herald says that a photo of Liu as a “smart female soldier” could still be found on the Defence Ministry’s website until recently. In fact, Liu founded her own construction firm Xiangyang Group in 1992, growing it into one of the biggest developers in Harbin, with businesses spanning infrastructure and water supply. Meanwhile, she also found the time to obtain two masters degrees, including one from the prestigious Peking University. As early as 2002, New Fortune magazine was naming her the 179th richest person in China with a net worth of Rmb500 million. Liu’s fortune grew to Rmb4 billion last year, according to Hurun (it listed her as the 46th richest woman in the country).
Liu joined the CPPCC in 2002 as the youngest representative for Heilongjiang. That led the Beijing Times to gush: “It isn’t uncommon for a rich woman to be beautiful as well. It is less common for a rich woman to be beautiful and powerful. For a woman that is rich, beautiful, powerful, well-educated and started out from rags, there is only one: Liu Yingxia.”
The 42 year-old has been an advocate of opening up state-monopolised sectors to private capital. And her wish seemed to have been granted in 2012 when a unit belonging to the oil giant CNPC invested Rmb1 billion in a fund that she founded and chaired. The fund was set up to draw capital from both the public and private sectors to invest in infrastructure-related projects to bring natural gas from western China to central and coastal regions.
According to 21CN, Liu’s leading role on this deal “was a key factor for her removal” as a CPPCC member. Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said it has also sucked Liu into the corruption probe now embroiling CNPC (see WiC207). The crackdown has already led to the detention of a number of high-ranking officials including CNPC’s former Party chief Jiang Jiemin. Rumours have been growing that Zhou Yongkang, the former member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee who also worked in the state oil sector for three decades, might be the next target of the graft crackdown.
“Liu and Jiang know each other well,” 21CN suggested, without elaborating on their relationship. According to the South China Morning Post, Liu is now out of the country for “cancer treatment”, citing information received from her company.
The ongoing purge of businessmen and officials all point to a bigger probe into Zhou (see WiC227), with the domestic media now anticipating an announcement about his exact status. Confronted with the same question at the CPPCC’s opening press conference, spokesman Lu Xinhua tantalisingly replied that the current crackdown wasn’t “an empty threat” no matter how high the suspect’s ranking might be. “You understand what I am getting at,” Lu concluded, stopping just short of winking at the assembled press.
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