China is running out of space to jail corrupt government officials at the elite Qincheng prison. [Representational image]Creative Commons

How widespread is corruption within the government in China? An anti-corruption drive by President Xi Jinping seems to have yielded an answer: so widespread that prison space is running out!

An elite prison has had to cancel Lunar New Year celebrations within its premises because it has jailed too many government officials.

The jail being talked about is the Qincheng maximum security prison, which is generally reserved for errants from the country's ruling Communist party. However, not just any errant can get in there. That jail is reserved for only those who are above the rank of vice-marshal — also known as "tigers".  Hence, the prison is also called "tiger cage."

And Jinping's anti-corruption drive, which began in 2012, seems to have nailed too many "tigers". 

Overall, around 1.3 million government officials of all ranks — roughly 0.1 percent of the 1.38-billion Chinese population, or one out of every 1,000 Chinese — have been arrested or sentenced for corruption, according to a report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Of them, around 100 top Communist Party members are currently incarcerated in this elite jail, said the SCMP report. These include former security chief Zhou Yongkang, former top politician Bo Xilai, former presidential aide Ling Jihua and former top brass at the PLA, Guo Boxiong.

Crowding gets Lunar New Year celebrations canceled

The overcrowding has led to the cancellation of the Lunar New Year celebrations in the prison. The festival is the biggest across most of China, and is known to trigger arguably the world's largest human mass-migration every year as people go back to their families. 

Some Qincheng inmates were also allowed to meed their families on the occasion. "The prison used to allow inmates over 60 to have a meal in jail with a limited number of their immediate family members ahead of the Lunar New Year. Some of them will have a hotpot, others bring dumplings, whatever they like," the SCMP report quoted a source as saying.

"But this year, the prison has canceled the celebration with family – and not only that, they've also barred visitors for all inmates for the fortnight leading up to and following the new year," said the source. 

The report also quoted the relative of a top official who has been jailed in Qincheng since 2013 as saying: "He told me there were no more than six inmates in his area when he arrived. Now, because of the crackdown, there are more than 20 people in the block."

What is the Qincheng prison?

The Qincheng maximum security prison was founded in 1958 to house political prisoners from the Kuomintang or the Nationalist Party, which was the arch-rival of the Communist Party. Political prisoners from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were also jailed here. 

The complex was built with help from the erstwhile Soviet Union and is located about an hour's drive away from the center of China's capital city, Beijing. It is the only jail in China to be controlled by the country's Ministry of Public Security. All others are controlled by the Ministry of Justice. 

Prisoners at this jail are usually kept under strict scrutiny, unlike other elite jails across the world, where security is quite light. People who have been imprisoned at Qincheng have been known to have been kept in solitary confinement, leading to ailments and even disabilities.