An aviation official has killed himself and at least two airline executives have lost their jobs as authorities investigate suspected corruption within the highly regulated industry, reports said on Tuesday.
Liu Yajun, who headed the central and southern regions of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, threw himself in front of a train last Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing unnamed sources at China Southern Airlines and Baiyun Airport in the southern city of Guangzhou, where China Southern is based. It said there was no evidence Liu was involved in corruption, blaming his apparent suicide on depression and lack of sleep. But his death comes amid a slew of dismissals and reports of graft investigations involving both government and civilian officials connected with an industry that's rife with opportunities for bribery and influence peddling.
"They're toppling like dominoes," declared a headline in China Business News, a major financial newspaper.
China's communist leadership has staged countless anti-corruption campaigns, recognizing that endemic graft undermines its legitimacy. But allegations against top leaders in Beijing are almost never publicly acknowledged.
The high-profile treatment by the state-controlled press of the aviation-related allegations, mainly involving suspected bribery connected with the awarding of air routes and slots at airports, suggests that more trouble is coming.
Kuang Xin, director of civil aviation affairs at the National Development and Reform Commission, the government's main planning agency, was detained for questioning into allegations he took bribes to approve airport projects, the newspaper Global Times and other reports said on Tuesday.
It said the probe was targeting many other aviation officials. The Global Times said Kuang was in charge of approving airport construction projects and had influence over multimillion-dollar aircraft purchases at the CAAC.
Huang Dengke, CAAC's north China chief, is under investigation for allegedly peddling air routes and time slots, said Caixin, a prominent financial magazine, and other reports.
Former Beijing airport chief Zhang Zhizhong was dismissed in March and is reportedly under investigation. Zhang had taken over as head of the airport from Li Peiying, who was put to death in August 2009 after the People's Supreme Court upheld his sentence in a $16 million bribery and embezzlement case.
Airline executives are also feeling the heat.
China Southern Airlines, whose shares are traded in Hong Kong and New York, on June 11 approved the dismissal of Zhang Heping as its chief engineer, one of at least seven of its officials being questioned in connection with the probes.
The airline's notice to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange said Zhang was let go "due to job arrangement."
Meanwhile, Shi Guofeng, former general manager of operations control at Shanghai-based China Eastern is also reported to be under investigation for alleged corruption.
Zhu Yan, an official in the airline's media office, confirmed Shi was no longer working at China Eastern, which has struggled to become profitable after years of losses, but would not comment further.
Last week, China's National Audit Office reported finding misuse of nearly 103.5 million yuan ($15.2 million) in funds at China Eastern-run businesses for staff bonuses, subsidies and other purposes. It termed the situation a "black hole."