Members Only No More: China’s Graft Crackdown Nixes Private Clubs for Officials

Communist cadres must promise to refrain from belonging to or even visiting these “hotbeds of extravagance and corruption”

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Qilai Shen / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A member of the catering staff walks by parked sports cars during the Shanghai International Circuit Club Challenge, in Shanghai, China, on Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tony private clubs are the latest target of China’s anti-corruption crusaders, joining extravagant banquets and flashy cars as off limits for officials. Communist cadres must promise that they will refrain from belonging to or even visiting private clubs, said a Dec. 23 circular from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the body charged with cleaning up government ranks amid allegations of widespread abuse of power and graft within the ruling party.

The discipline commission made private clubs, which have proliferated in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, sound like dens of iniquity in a society marred by growing income disparity. “Some party officials frequented private clubs, enjoying themselves with feasting and other entertainment, some even engaging in power-for-money or power-for-sex deals,” said the commission’s statement, which also characterized the clubs as “hotbeds of extravagance and corruption.”

Since he came to power more than a year ago, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made tackling official graft a signature campaign, promising to combat runaway “hedonism” and “extravagance.” Nearly 20,000 officials have been punished in this anti-corruption crackdown, according to CCTV, the state broadcaster. Xi’s clean-up effort famously targets both low-ranking “flies,” or minor officials, and mighty “tigers” who prowl the highest levels of government. In the latest attack on tigers, Li Dongsheng, a vice minister of public security, is currently being investigated for “suspected serious law and discipline violations,” while rumors continue to swirl around the fate of China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang.

(MORE: Arrest of Activists Shows China’s Fight Against Corruption Is Only on Beijing’s Terms)

Meanwhile, the diet of flies and tigers is being scrutinized. Earlier this month, new party regulations specified that officials should refrain from feasting on rare wild animals, sharks’ fins and birds’ nests — all expensive delicacies in China. Overall, growth in luxury spending in China waned to its lowest level in years, according to Bain & Company’s 2013 China Luxury Goods Market Study. Particularly hard hit was the luxury watch sector, which experienced an 11% decline year on year, said the research report. Pricey timepieces were once a popular gift currency among the Communist Party elite.

The latest assault on private clubs elicited some skepticism on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging service. “Is this a useful anti-graft weapon?” wondered one commenter. “What if these officials don’t keep their word [to stay away from private clubs]?” Some Chinese private clubs appear open to creative ways to keep prying eyes from peering at their august clientele. A receptionist at the Yi 16 Club in Beijing, where annual membership fees costs between $8,000 to nearly $50,000, said the club provides, if necessary, a special service to shield the license plates of members’ cars from the public. Communist cadres have license plates that denote their official status. Still, the receptionist noted, “I can’t distinguish officials from ordinary members.” More than anything, that lack of differentiation between a member of the Communist elite and a regular captain of industry should worry Xi and his team of graft-busters.

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

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