An Anticlimactic End to the “Arctic Catfish” Scandal

After 200 days, the long-running “Arctic Catfish” scandal has reached a conclusion, dissatisfying and anticlimactic as it may be. It began after social media user “Arctic Catfish” (北极鲶鱼, Běijí Niányú), a young Chinese woman studying in Australia, stoked online fury for posting photos and comments that flaunted her family’s wealth and extravagant lifestyle, mocked the Chinese people, and lobbed insults at those less wealthy than herself. Online sleuths unearthed clues that the woman was the granddaughter of Zhong Gengci (钟庚赐, Zhōng Gēngcì), a former Shenzhen transport bureau official who retired 16 years ago, raising questions about how the family of a civil servant managed to accumulate what Artic Catfish described as “a nine-figure fortune.”  

In March, following calls from journalists and irate citizens, authorities in Shenzhen launched a corruption investigation into Zhong Gengci. On October 10, the Shenzhen Municipal Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision finally released a statement announcing the results of the investigation: Zhong Gengci, former director of the freight management branch of the Shenzhen Municipal Transportation Bureau, was found to be “disloyal and dishonest to the Communist Party of China as he repeatedly colluded to obstruct organizational reviews, engaged in illicit activities to accumulate wealth, took unauthorized part-time jobs for personal gain, and accepted property from others in exchange for using his position for their benefit.” The statement went on to say that Zhong had been punished with expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party, a reduction in pension to that of a “second-level clerk,” and the confiscation of any illicit gains (amount unspecified) obtained through his violations.

On Chinese social media, there was an outpouring of anger and dismay at what many saw as an inadequate punishment for such serious offenses. Some questioned why the authorities did not bring criminal charges against Zhong, as some of his activities seemed to fall into that category, while others wondered why a man who had profited so much from corruption would be allowed to keep his pension. Responding to the news under the hashtag #Arctic Catfish’s Grandpa ‘Netted’ 16 Years After Retirement#, Weibo user @酒巷痴子 (Jiǔxiàng Chīzi) joked: “Today my old homeroom teacher called me from out of the blue. She said because I’d embezzled money from the class activity fund over a decade ago, she was going to fire me as class president.”

An article from WeChat blogger 木蹊说 (Mù Qī Shuō, “Mu Qi Says”) argued that the punishment was too light, and that Zhong should have been prosecuted for corruption or bribery, rather than being given a slap on the wrist and a slightly lower pension:

The most important part is this: “Pension benefits will be commensurate with the rank of second-level clerk.”

In other words, Mr. Zhong still gets to keep his [government] pension, which is funded by the support of taxpayers.

That’s why I say that Mr. Zhong’s punishment was unusually lenient, amounting to a form of extrajudicial favoritism. [Chinese]

Current affairs commentator Xiang Dongliang, who writes under the handle 基本常识 (Jīběn Chángshí, “Basic Common Sense”), had a bit of fun with the topic. In a satirical essay referencing the wealth and property holdings of Zhong’s family, the author asked, “If Grandpa Loses His Pension, How Will ‘Arctic Catfish’ and Her Family Survive?”

Every year, Arctic Catfish has to pay property taxes on her overseas mansion. Changing the water in the swimming pool alone costs thousands! And all that [international] travel is also a big expense for the family, isn’t it? How is Catfish’s poor old grandpapa supposed to afford all that on his measly pension? Having lived in honest poverty for decades, how do you expect them to survive if they’re suddenly forced to return to the pre-1949, pre-Liberation days? [Chinese]

Another article, from finance and economy blog 老斯基财经 (Lǎo Sījī Cáijīng, “Lao Siji Finance”), raised the question of how much of Zhong’s supposedly “nine-figure fortune” was actually confiscated by investigators, and why he was allowed to keep his pension. The author included a table of monthly “basic pension” amounts for various cities and provinces in China, and contrasted these with pensions for urban employees and civil servants. The article estimated that even Zhong’s reduced pension might be in the high thousands of yuan, far surpassing most ordinary people’s pensions:

Despite his disloyalty, dishonesty, obstruction of organizational oversight, accumulation of illicit wealth, and corruption—and even after having been knocked down to the lowest rung of the bureaucratic ladder—former Director Zhong will still collect a considerable pension.

Even at his lowest point, having committed numerous disciplinary and legal infractions, former Director Zhong still occupies a rarefied realm that remains far out of reach for ordinary people. [Chinese]

The Arctic Catfish and Zhong Gengci scandal has once again fueled public discussion of corruption and malfeasance among government bureaucrats, and revived concerns that Xi Jinping’s long-running crackdown on corruption within the Party has failed to root out the problem, while sparing or being overly lenient on some clearly corrupt officials. In September, after the Shenzhen Municipal Transportation Bureau claimed that the investigation was an internal matter and that the results would not be made public, China News Service’s “Top News Express” Weibo account (@国士通车, Guóshì Tōngchē) launched a poll asking: “Do you think the results of the Arctic Catfish Incident should be made public?” An overwhelming number, 90% of respondents, answered that yes, the results should be made public.


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