As a bank officer from a poor region in rural China, Gong Ai'ai is an unlikely property baron. In a country where middle class workers can struggle to afford a single apartment in major cities, Gong is accused of amassing a real estate empire worth at least $160 million. Her alleged secret: corruption, kick-backs and multiple fake identities.
The stunning wealth she is accused of amassing — 45 properties in three cities — and the audacity with which she is accused of doing it has touched a nerve with a Chinese public long numb to tales of rampant corruption among the nation's official bureaucracy.
Gong — who was arrested Monday on suspicion of forging official documents — is accused of misusing her power while working for the county-backed Shenmu Rural Commercial Bank to give loans to mine operators in the area in return for cash or shares in the mines. Gong is accused of using that money and at least three fake national identity cards obtained with help of corrupt police to fund her real estate purchases.
Of the properties she purchased, 41 are in Beijing, where skyrocketing real estate prices have priced many Chinese families out of homeownership.
Gong's case has captivated Chinese in a way other reports of corruption haven't. The public and state media have registered shock with each twist since her alleged misdeeds began trickling out in mid-January, as the number of properties she allegedly bought swelled from several, to more than 20, to 45, and the number of fake IDs went from one to three. In the days prior to her detention, speculation centered on the whereabouts of Gong — dubbed "Sister House" by the media — and why she had yet to be arrested.
"I think 'Sister House' Gong Ai'ai is now an entertainment celebrity," Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, said in an online posting Tuesday. "Entertainment in China is not very developed, so all these corruption thrillers are compensating for it. They are more twisted than some half-baked movie plots."
Gong's ability to get the fake identity cards is central to the popular interest, suggesting corruption among the police who issue the cards. Authorities have already detained four police officers on suspicion of helping Gong obtain the fake IDs, the Ministry of Public Security said.
Fake IDs can help hide income and business activities and circumvent rules in Beijing and other cities that limit the number of houses and apartments someone can buy to prevent speculation and tamp down prices.
Multiple IDs give a person access to benefits others are deprived of, said Yang Xuedong, a researcher at the Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation, a Communist Party think-tank.
"It allows some people to become privileged citizens, enjoying double benefits in property purchase, loans, education, child birthing and social welfare. It also provides convenience for some officials to hide assets and even abscond overseas," Yang wrote in a recent commentary in the Global Times.
Gong's case coincides with others that have emerged in recent months of government officials buying up large numbers of properties beyond what their civil servant incomes should be able to afford. A senior urban management official in the southern city of Guangzhou and his family had 21 properties. In the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, a political commissar of an anti-corruption bureau and his ex-wife had 19. In central Henan province, a housing director and his children bought 25 properties.
Although Gong is not a government employee, she serves on local legislatures and is seen as part of China's sprawling bureaucracy. As a bank official, she had access to public resources.
The Chinese public also is concerned that loopholes in supervision, as alleged in Gong's case, also have helped government officials accumulate wealth and evade accountability.
"The contrast is too huge when government officials should have dozens of houses while ordinary people cannot afford a single unit from a lifetime of work," said Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
These cases have fueled public anger about cozy trades of power for money and have ignited calls for asset disclosure by officials. How these cases are handled are seen as a test for the newly installed Communist Party leadership, which has warned that corruption threatens the party's legitimacy and has vowed to stamp it out.
This "goes to show how state resources and public trust and authority have been excessively abused by those people," said Yang Fengchun, a professor of government and management at Peking University. "They behave as if the country were at their beck and call. Whatever they want, they get it."
Officials have yet to give a complete tally of the worth of Gong's properties, but 21 are estimated to be worth nearly 1 billion yuan, or $160 million.
Her scandal first hit the Internet with an article sourced to a trade news site. Though the original article soon disappeared, state media and China's very active blogosphere wouldn't let go — a familiar pattern in recent months that has seen activists posts sex tapes of officials and identify officials wearing expensive wristwatches. As in those cases, authorities followed up on the lead about Gong.
The Ministry of Public Safety moved in, setting up a task force to investigate how Gong had obtained the fake identities, including a highly-coveted Beijing one.
Gong is also accused of using the identity cards to register companies and to invest in real estate development.
While her case has fascinated the public, it has also exacerbated skepticism among many Chinese and commentators that authorities will get serious about asset disclosure or other measures to fight the corruption they have benefited from.
"First and foremost, it's unacceptable to the officials, who will be done for once their assets are revealed," said Liu of the Social Sciences Academy. "No way can any government official afford so many properties on a government salary."