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China’s crackdown on corruption targets sales of officials’ calligraphy

As part of his corruption crackdown, China’s president has ordered government officials to be less arty.

State media reported Thursday that President Xi Jinping has told government officials to quit their positions in calligraphy associations and other art groups. The ban applies to retired officials as well.

Why? It appears that numerous Chinese officials have used their status in art associations to cover up bribes. A typical payoff looks like this: A businessman needs a favor from a local government official, one with a lofty title with an art association. The businessman pays an exorbitant amount for a work of calligraphy painted by the official, and the favor is granted.

Xi’s order this week wasn’t unexpected. For the last two weeks, the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-graft agency has told officials to stop dabbling in calligraphy and to leave the art form to real painters.

“Leading officials shouldn’t steal meat from the plates of artists,” said an editorial earlier this month that appeared on the website of the anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Calligraphy is one of China’s most revered art forms, and government officials have practiced it – and sometimes excelled at it – for centuries. One of China’s greatest calligraphers was Wang Hsi Chih, a general in the court of the Tsin Dynasty, during the third century.

The extent of the current brides-for-art racket is unclear. But a story Thursday in the China Daily named Shaanxi province – in the north-central part of the country – as a “hotbed” for this type of graft.

The most high-profile involves Jiang Guoxing, deputy head of the press and publications bureau in Jiangsu province, north of Shanghai. Jiang gained some celebrity as mayor of Jurong, a poor Jiangsu town with an economy that thrived under his leadership.

But as Jiang’s stature rose, he started to take small bribes, which led to larger ones, according to state media reports. He was finally ensnared when Jiangsu investigators began looking into real estate deals and learned that developers had paid 100,000 yuan – about $16,250 – for some of Jiang’s handwriting. Altogether, he’s accused of accepting $1.8 million in bribes.

In September, a court sentenced Jiang to 12 years and six months in prison, with a 400,000 yuan fine.

Since he ascended to the top of the Communist Party two years ago, Xi has launched a sweeping anti-corruption drive. Cynics say he’s doing it mainly to eliminate rivals and shore up his power base. But not a day goes by without state media reporting more officials, large and small, accused of absconding vast sums of public money.

On Thursday, state media reported on the allegedly ill-gotten gains of Wei Pengyuan, former deputy director of the National Energy Administration’s coal department, who’d been formally charged with bribery Wednesday.

In October, prosecutors found 200 million yuan – about $32.2 million – concealed in Wei’s home. They also found 16 money scanners, four of which had apparently broken after counting so many bills.

Special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.