Shanghai free trade zone director under investigation

Shanghai (AFP) - A director of China's first free trade zone (FTZ) in Shanghai has been put under investigation for "severe disciplinary violations", Communist Party authorities said Tuesday, using a phrase which typically refers to corruption.

In a statement on its website, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection -- the ruling party's corruption watchdog -- gave no further details of the case involving Ai Baojun, 55, who is also a vice mayor of the Chinese commercial hub.

Ai holds the title of director of the Shanghai FTZ, according to his official biography. He has been one of several Shanghai vice mayors since 2007, holding the portfolio for development and planning, it said.

China set up the Shanghai FTZ in September 2013, promising a range of financial reforms, though foreign companies have been disappointed with the pace of change.

Ai was also head of the management committee for the Shanghai International Tourism and Resorts Zone, his official biography showed. The zone is site of the city's future Disney theme park, scheduled to open in 2016.

Following an investigation, authorities typically pass cases involving Communist Party and government officials accused of corruption to prosecutors for court trial and punishment.

Chinese media said Ai is the highest level Shanghai official to formally come under investigation since Xi Jinping took over as Communist chief in 2012, with Internet portal Tencent calling him the city's "first tiger".

- 'Deep grief' -

Authorities have launched a much-publicised drive against corruption since Xi came to power, vowing to target both high-level "tigers" and low-ranking "flies".

There has been speculation over whether Xi might target Shanghai, where he was the city's party chief on his rise to the top post, and which is widely considered to be the main power base of former leader Jiang Zemin.

The highest ranking Shanghai official to fall in recent years was former party chief Chen Liangyu, who was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2008 for bribery and abuse of power.

Ai's official biography disappeared from the official Shanghai government website shortly after the investigation was announced. He previously worked at Shanghai-based metals giant Baosteel before entering the city government.

Shanghai party chief Han Zheng pledged "zero tolerance" towards graft at an internal meeting about the case, according to a statement posted on the government's official microblog.

"For corruption, the firm attitude is always zero tolerance," he said, adding the case had caused "deep grief".

Ai is not the first government official involved with the zone to run afoul of authorities.

Authorities have announced that Dai Haibo, previously Communist Party chief and executive deputy director of the FTZ, was under investigation for "severe" violations of discipline and the law.

State media said in August that Dai was suspected of bribery, but it was not clear whether his alleged offences occurred during his tenure at the FTZ.