China anti-corruption hunt catches 'tiger' official

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s anti-graft watchdog has launched an investigation into the former top official of the central province of Shaanxi, the latest “tiger” to be ensnared in President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption.

Since taking office in 2012, Xi has waged a multi-year war on graft, which he has pledged not to abate until officials, in his words, “dare not, cannot and do not want to, be corrupt”.

Zhao Zhengyong, 67, the provincial Communist Party boss from 2013 to 2016, is suspected of “serious violations of discipline and law,” the powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a one-line statement on its website late on Tuesday.

Zhao has been accused of failing to act on six sets of instructions from Xi, beginning in 2014, in a case centering on hundreds of luxury villas illegally built in Shaanxi, the financial publication Caixin said.

A television documentary on China’s state broadcaster last week showed dramatic images of the sprawling villa complex being leveled to rubble.

It repeatedly criticized the “main leader of the Shaanxi provincial committee at the time”, but did not directly name Zhao.

It was not possible for Reuters to reach Zhao for comment.

Last March, China overhauled its graft fighting machinery with legislation for a National Supervisory Commission, widening the graft watchdog’s power to all state employees and putting its controversial detention and interrogation methods on a legal basis.

Analysts view the reforms as an institutionalization of the fight on graft, embodying a shift in emphasis from rooting out financial graft and Xi’s political enemies to enforcing instructions from the top leadership and punishing negligence.

The investigation into Zhao is a “vivid embodiment” of the “overwhelming victory” in the campaign announced by Xi in December, the CCDI’s official publication said on Wednesday.

Zhao is also accused of meddling in a decade-old Shaanxi coal mining dispute spotlighted last month when an influential TV host said that China’s Supreme People’s Court had lost a document crucial to the case, Caixin said in a lengthy report.

The online post in December by TV host Cui Yongyuan sparked discussion and prompted China’s top legal authority, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, to open an investigation into the loss of the document.

In comments carried by official news agency Xinhua in 2013, Xi said it was just as important to go after the “flies”, or low-ranking officials, as it was to tackle the “tigers”, or top officials, in the battle on graft.

Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez