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Behind the NPC vote-buying scandal: how Beijing went on the warpath after its preferred candidates lost

The expulsion of dozens of National People’s Congress deputies from Liaoning province last month was triggered by the lower-level, provincial legislature’s rejection three years ago of NPC candidates recommended by Beijing, sources say.

They said top Communist Party leaders were enraged when unprecedented, large-scale vote rigging in the Liaoning People’s Congress in 2013 saw NPC candidates favoured by the party leadership fail to win election.

The scale of the scandal, which saw the party’s preferred candidates lose out to ones backed by bribe-paying business chiefs, had alarmed the party leadership, they said, and if not addressed had threatened to undermine party general secretary Xi Jinping’s game plan for the party’s national congress late next year, at which a significant reshuffle of senior positions is expected.

“A few candidates designated by the central authorities as deputies to the National People’s Congress failed to garner enough votes from Liaoning provincial legislators in early 2013,” a former Liaoning People’s Congress deputy said, adding that the unprecedented political blunder had infuriated top party leaders and sparked an investigation into electoral fraud in the northeastern province.

A special meeting of the NPC Standing Committee on September 13 voted to expel 45 of Liaoning’s 102 NPC deputies for vote buying and bribery during the 2013 election, the official Xinhua news agency reported, without detailing the amount of money involved.

NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang, who is also a member of the party’s innermost Politburo Standing Committee, told the meeting the election fraud in Liaoning had “challenged China’s socialist democratic politics” and touched the “bottom line” of China’s political system.

Liaoning vote-buying scandal points to rot in China’s system

The Liaoning scandal is by no means the first case of its kind, although it is the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that dozens of NPC deputies have been sacked for election irregularities at the same time. In 2013, 56 Hunan People’s Congress deputies from the city of Hengyang were dismissed amid allegations they had bribed 518 city lawmakers for their votes.

At least 40 of the 45 deputies from Liaoning expelled by the NPC Standing Committee were prominent businesspeople in the province.

A mid-ranking official in the provincial capital, Shenyang, said billionaires in Liaoning had been more than willing to spend up big to secure NPC positions, which, in addition to making it more difficult to launch investigations into their affairs, also enabled them to initiate legislative proposals and gain direct access to local officials who were able to further their business interests.

Media reports in recent years have put the combined wealth of China’s 70 richest NPC deputies at more than that of all 535 members of the United States Congress, plus the US president and members of his cabinet.

On the mainland, lawmakers above the township and county levels are mostly elected by people’s congresses representing the administrative division or divisions immediately below. For example, a majority of NPC deputies are elected by provincial legislators, who in turn are elected by prefectural-level lawmakers.

The former provincial legislator, who requested anonymity, declined to say how many candidates had contested the NPC election in Liaoning in 2013, or how many had failed to win election.

The impact of the Liaoning vote-buying scandal may spread far

He said the close to 3,000 deputies in the NPC were largely elected either by provincial-level people’s congresses or the People’s Liberation Army, rather than by the central authorities. But party and state leaders, including the 25 members of the party’s decision-making Politburo, and a few senior regional cadres were recommended by the central authorities to provincial-level legislatures, with President Xi, for example, having been elected by the Shanghai People’s Congress.

A senior journalist in Liaoning told the South China Morning Post that at least two candidates supported by the central authorities had failed to win election to the NPC in early 2013. He said one of them was Shi Guiyu, who at the time was a member of the party’s provincial standing committee and the official in charge of united front work in the economically struggling province.

The scandal also saw 454 of the Liaoning legislature’s 612 members expelled for bribing their way into the provincial people’s congress, with its standing committee paralysed when 38 of its 62 members were dismissed for their involvement in vote rigging.

Four of the five senior provincial officials to have fallen from grace since late 2012 were implicated in the extensive electoral fraud, with the former head of the provincial legislature, Wang Min, who is also a former provincial party boss, accused of direct responsibility for the vote-buying scandal.

Former Communist Party chief of Liaoning province expelled over alleged election graft

“What Wang Min did was no different from turning a blind eye to the shortlist of NPC candidates provided by the central authorities, otherwise they would not have lost the election,” the official in Shenyang said.

Wang was expelled from the party and stripped of all his public posts in August, after being placed under investigation by the party’s graft watchdog on the eve of the annual NPC meeting in March this year. His trial on graft charges is pending.