The “Arctic Catfish incident” of wealth-flaunting that has been closely followed for six months by China’s netizens and media finally had its outcome on 10 October 2023.
The Shenzhen Municipal Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision (abbreviated as “the Commission”) has announced that Zhong Gengci, former freight management branch director of the Transport Bureau of Shenzhen Municipality (abbreviated as “the Transport Bureau”), has been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His retirement benefits have been reduced to those of a level two Staff Member, and his illicit gains have been confiscated.
While netizens generally believe that the punishment is overly lenient, the previously silent Transport Bureau has given an explanation; on the day of the announcement, “Arctic Catfish grandfather” dominated Weibo searches.
Many netizens commented that they saw “arrogance of power” in the Transport Bureau’s reply.
The outcome of over six months of investigation
In a Weibo post in March this year, Arctic Catfish, whose IP address has been traced to Australia, boasted of her family’s wealth and her grandfather, who was a former director of a government agency. Her comments that “her family is worth nine digits” (meaning hundreds of millions of RMB) and that "[grandfather] feels corrupt” went viral.
In the face of netizens’ doubts, Zhong Gengci, Arctic Catfish’s 76-year-old grandfather, quickly refuted the claim of “nine-digit wealth”. He said he was a district-level director of the Transport Bureau, who retired 16 years ago, adding that he “worked honestly until retirement”.
On the same day, the Transport Bureau posted on its official Weibo account, confirming that the person mentioned in Arctic Catfish’s boastful claims was Zhong, a former cadre of its freight management branch, adding that it had started investigations and would promptly report its findings.
However, after a month, there was no follow-up. On 25 April, the media contacted the Transport Bureau to enquire, and the response was that investigations were still ongoing.
Two months later, there was another media enquiry and the reply was that the Commission had intervened in the investigation and the Transport Bureau no longer had authority, and the outcome was pending the Commission’s investigation.
The Transport Bureau staff even said, “Shenzhen is more open-minded, so there is no need to worry about certain things. The investigation outcome will definitely come out.”
However, another two months went by and there was still no news. On 25 August, the media contacted the Commission, who only then replied: “Wait for the announcement on the follow-up.”
On 10 September, after a five-month wait, a netizen posted online the Transport Bureau’s reply which stated that the matter will not be disclosed, which sparked a complete furor.
Many netizens commented that they saw “arrogance of power” in the Transport Bureau’s reply.
Top News Express (国是直通车), the Weibo platform of Chinese state media China News Service (CNS), published a commentary on 15 September, asking whether the change from promptly reporting the outcome to not disclosing it was due to some unspeakable reason, or something more. The commentary called for a more detailed, direct response to questions.
... in recent years, there have been occasional cases of officials’ children flaunting their “special privileges” and getting themselves and their parents into trouble.
A Weibo poll by CNS showed that over 90% of netizens believe that the outcome of the Arctic Catfish incident should be made known.
The media cited explanations by legal practitioners that netizens have “used the wrong approach” to “apply (to the Transport Bureau) for information disclosure” of the outcome of the investigation of the Arctic Catfish incident, because the “detailed information of disciplinary investigations of public officers” indeed does not fall under public information. However, under heavy pressure, in its response to the media on 14 September, the Transport Bureau changed its tune, promising that “the outcome will be made known within 15 working days.”
While netizens and the media kept time, the Commission finally announced the investigation outcome on 10 October, on the 15th working day after 14 September.
The rise of 'deliberately damaging my father' as anti-corruption in China
“Flaunting wealth” (炫富) and “showing off my father” (炫爹) is not uncommon in China; in recent years, there have been occasional cases of officials’ children flaunting their “special privileges” and getting themselves and their parents into trouble.
Last year, Zhou Jie, an employee of a state-owned enterprise in Jiangxi, flaunted his wealth in his circle of friends, claiming that the Baihao Yinzhen tea he consumed cost “200,000 RMB (about US$27,700) a kati”. He also boasted that his family was well-connected, claiming that “the personnel department of the provincial office just telephoned my father” and “my father’s promotion to deputy director has been secured”.
These comments immediately captured the netizens’ attention, resulting in Zhou’s suspension and investigation by his employer, Jiangxi State-Owned Capital Operation Holding Group Co. Ltd.
In 2020, Tong Zhuo, a previously well-promoted China celebrity, said proudly in a “self-exposé” during a live stream that his father had used his connections seven years ago to change Tong’s status from one who had previously sat for the college entrance examinations or gaokao to a first-time candidate.
Arctic Catfish’s Weibo posts are not simply about flaunting wealth and special privileges. She also allegedly used language insulting to China and the Chinese people to provoke netizens...
Consequently, Tong’s gaokao results were nullified and his undergraduate degree from the Central Academy of Drama was revoked. Tong’s father, Tong Tianfeng, then deputy secretary-general of Linfen National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Shanxi, was also removed from duty and put on probation for a year. Others who were involved, including the director of the Linfen Bureau of Education, were punished and tried in court.
On 14 February 2020, when Hubei was locked down at the start of the pandemic, Weibo user Euamoter wrote a post saying that his father, an official, sent a vehicle to bring him back to Jingzhou. This led to the suspension of his father, He Yanfang, then head of market operations of Jingzhou Municipal Bureau of Commerce.
What exactly did Arctic Catfish say?
However, Arctic Catfish’s Weibo posts are not simply about flaunting wealth and special privileges. She also allegedly used language insulting to China and the Chinese people to provoke netizens, trample on their dignity and promote extremely distorted values.
On her Weibo page, she brashly posted photographs of her grandfather “taken with his friends who are divisional commanders in the army and the leaders of city bureaus” when he was sent abroad on official duties 20 or 30 years ago. She even indicated in brackets that “there was also a minister for transport… utmost worship”.
In another set of old photographs of her grandfather when he was abroad, she wrote that he was “wearing a suit while on official duties in the US to become the Wolf of Wall Street” and that “written on his face are the words: ‘feels corrupt’”.
Arctic Catfish’s comments have exposed the ugly side of the children of China’s officials — while enjoying the fruits of their families’ success, they are full of malice towards their own country and contempt for their compatriots...
And when she wrote on Weibo that she had “run” (润, sounds like the English “run”) to Australia, netizens asked her why she still used Weibo since she had already left China. She replied with comments like “How can I not like it when so much money is contributed by ‘Chinese leeks’?" (韭菜, meaning con victims); “All I know is that my family is worth nine digits”; “I can choose any country I want”.
She added that “when my grandfather was a director at the Transport Bureau, your grandfather was probably giving people pedicures” and retorted that she “loves seeing you being stubbornly Chinese” (支性难改, a derogatory phrase to describe mainland Chinese) and “angrily stomping your feet on the Internet every day to make a squeak”.
Arctic Catfish’s comments have exposed the ugly side of the children of China’s officials — while enjoying the fruits of their families’ success, they are full of malice towards their own country and contempt for their compatriots, grovelling at those above but trampling upon those below. This is probably also why for over six months China’s netizens did not let her out of their sight, until the official outcome of the investigation.
Descendants of China’s officials helping new anti-corruption drive?
According to a Weibo survey on the day Zhong was officially expelled from the CCP, over 90% of netizens thought that the punishment was overly lenient, noting that he could continue to enjoy retirement benefits even after breaking the law.
Many netizens also noticed that the Commission’s announcement also included Li Fumin, former Party deputy secretary of the Transport Bureau and former director of the city rail transit construction headquarters office.
Li, 59, has not only been expelled from the CCP and dismissed from public office but also referred to the procuratorate for prosecution and legal punishment. Netizens also discussed the fact that the announcement about Zhong made no mention of legal procedures, with the search phrase “grandfather of Arctic Catfish may not be prosecuted” trending on Weibo on the afternoon of 10 October.
On 10 October, state media People’s Daily Online published an article titled "The 'Catfish' Has Exposed the Big Fish, No Escape No Matter How Deep" (“鲶鱼” 终于带出大鱼，潜伏再深也难逃捕捞！), saying that this is a manifestation of public opinion. As for whether more will be revealed in due course, that is worth watching.
The article also said that although Zhong’s downfall was accidental, it was inevitable that he was investigated, and Arctic Catfish inadvertently “contributed” to the fight against corruption by causing her grandfather’s downfall through her “influence”.
One after another, the descendants of China’s officials have exposed their families’ corruption on social media. Given that each investigation has exposed confirmed corruption, netizens naturally hope for more similar incidents to ferret out every corrupt official. Some netizens commented that the fight against corruption is always in progress and also in the home.
However, the blowback from such a model of anti-corruption is also strong. In the Arctic Catfish incident, the people instinctively sensed the corrupt lives and condescending arrogance of the descendants of China’s officials, which will undoubtedly worsen conflicts between officials and the people, and between the rich and poor.
The passivity of the Transport Bureau has eroded the credibility of local government agencies, as well as intensified netizens’ dissatisfaction with unfair wealth distribution in society, exacerbating social instability.
From past tip-offs by “mistresses” to recent self-sabotage by grandchildren of officials, they are by nature non-systemic, post factum moves against corruption. Systemic anti-corruption measures — which are more effective — should start with preventing corruption, or at least enhancing early warning mechanisms, to break the abnormal cycle of uncovering corruption with every investigation.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "北极鲶鱼”事件：官员后代成反腐斗士？".