China Orders Energy Officials to Surrender Passports in Graft Probe

But replacement travel documentation will be easy to acquire for officials with cash and the right connections

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China National Petroleum Corp. workers inspect a pump jack

The entire management of China’s largest oil-and-gas producer has been ordered to surrender passports in a sweeping graft probe, but the move has already been depicted as ineffective.

Beijing-based newspaper Securities Daily reported on Tuesday that middle- and top-ranking managers at scandal-hit China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) were told to give up their travel documents as part of a widening corruption inquiry. Around 1,000 officials are affected.

However, insiders say any crooked official worth his salt would have multiple travel documents. “Chinese officials and party cadres usually have two different kinds of passports: an official passport and regular passports,” a government official based in Beijing told TIME on condition of anonymity. “Official passports are usually held by the divisions, while the regular passports are kept by officials themselves.”

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Even if both kinds of passports are surrendered, getting hold of a false passport, or a passport obtained under an alias, doesn’t seem to be a problem for a determined apparatchik on the run.

A raft of corrupt officials have attempted to escape the Middle Kingdom using illicit travel documents over the years. Zhou Jinhuo, former director of the Industry and Commerce Bureau of east China’s Fujian province, fled to the U.S. in 2006 using a real passport but acquired under an alias. He was under investigation by anticorruption agencies at the time.

Liu Tienan, former deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, was arrested in May while reportedly carrying an Australian passport and plane ticket in a false name. He is accused of having $19 million in stolen cash in several bank accounts.

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Cai Ling, a professor of economics and law at Wuhan-based Zhongnan University and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, complained in March that ordinary people found it prohibitively difficult to apply for legitimate credentials like resident permits, while crooked elites could accumulate false documentation to cover up various misdeeds.

“Many corrupt officials flee overseas using a real passport with a false identity,” she said, “so we should investigate how they get these false passports.”

Four top CNPC officials, including deputy general manager Wang Yongchun, are currently under investigation for corruption. The passport measure was introduced at a company-wide meeting last week, a source close to the state-owned energy company told the South China Morning Post. In addition, section heads and executives have been ordered to submit daily attendance records.

China’s nationwide anticorruption campaign has gathered momentum since President Xi Jinping took office in March. The 60-year-old has vowed to weed out corrupt officials from low-ranking “flies” to high-ranking “tigers.”

On Sept. 1, Jiang Jiemin, former chairman of CNPC and current director of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, became the latest top Chinese official to fall under a graft investigation.

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