Published on 3 Nov 2012

Chinese politics – just a few bad apples?

China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, is pretty clear about corruption.

“Becoming rich in a legal way is worth all honour and respect. Later the taxation authorities will also respect you because you are contributing to the economic development of the country,” he said in August 2000, in the only interview he’s known to have given. “But you should not go into politics if you wish to become wealthy. In that case you will inevitably become a corrupt and filthy official.”

The “corrupt and filthy official” is an archetype in China going back to the days of the emperors. Nowadays, the standard model is the local communist party boss who sells the village land to a developer and pockets the profits, or who accepts a bribe to turn a blind eye to a factory flushing toxic waste into the river. In a famous news story from 2009, a schoolgirl was asked on TV what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“When I grow up I want to be an official,” she replied.

“What kind of official?” the interviewer asked.

“A corrupt official because corrupt officials have a lot of things,” she said.

Rotten leadership

Increasingly, however, that’s the least of it. A series of revelations this year indicates that the families of the most senior officials have amassed huge fortunes throughout their guanxi, their connections. This poses the biggest challenge for the new leadership as it assumes power.

The Chinese government may not be democratically elected,  but the party has legitimacy because of its historical role in liberating China from colonialism and, more recently, bringing prosperity. However, if large numbers of Chinese people believe that the leadership is rotten, it will become hard for the party to continue ruling with the people’s consent.

The Chinese media sometimes goes after corrupt local officials, but only the foreign media dares touch members of the Politburo. In June, Bloomberg News revealed that Xi Jinping’s sister, Qiaoqiao Qi, and other family members have amassed assets totalling US$376m. Bloomberg is clear that that there’s nothing to indicate that Xi or his second wife, Peng Liyuan, know about the fortune, but the story has nonetheless been blocked in China, as has Bloomberg’s website. The Chinese authorities know how sensitive this is – Bloomberg quotes Xi himself telling officials in 2004: “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.”

In October, a New York Times investigation revealed that the family of Premier Wen Jiabao controls assets worth US$2.7bn. Again, nothing is in the name of Wen himself, and there is nothing to suggest that he knows what his family members own. But company records show that his son, daughter, younger brother, brother-in-law and 90-year old mother have accumulated huge wealth since he reached the top of the party. The New York Times website is now blocked in China and for a while even web searches of his name were barred.

Fancy cars

When I lived in China, people often complained to me that local officials were corrupt, but they had faith that if the top leadership knew they would do something about it.

“Grandpa Wen” with his open face and his relaxed style was respected and liked. But blocking websites doesn’t stop Chinese people from finding out what’s going on. The party machinery pumps out propaganda saying that the disgraced Chongqing Party boss, Bo Xilai, was corrupt and that’s why he has fallen from grace.

It’s the old story – one bad apple in the barrel. Yet, like Bo, most of the top leadership has somehow found the money to send their children to Oxford or Harvard, and everyone knows that the fancy cars you see driving down the Bund in Shanghai or racing round the Beijng ringroads are driven by the children of senior officials.

Until now, most Chinese people have accepted their leaders enriching themselves because they too are getting richer. But over the next decade as the economy slows down, and the gap between rich and poor grows wider, the new leadership may find that those on whose behalf they are governing may become less accepting and more angry.

Follow Lindsey on Twitter via @lindseyhilsum

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum

One reader comment

  1. Nalliah Thayabharan says:

    Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao’s supporters were out-voted when they tried to keep Xi Jinping out of succession at meetings 5 years ago. But Hu Jintao may promote vice-premier Li Keqiang at the last minute. Currently Li Keqiang is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao, who is tainted by corruption following his family amassed $2.7 billion in the past 10 years. Still, ousting Xi Jinping may not be necessary because as Premier Li Keqiang could remain Hu Jintao’s man in the palace.
    Xi Jinping, groomed as Hu Jintao’s successor for almost 5 years, suddenly disappeared from public 2 months ago for more than a month. That was strange for a person found on front pages almost daily, including a high profile visit to the US last February. During his absence, Xi Jinping did not attend an important session of China’s Military Commission of which he is the Vice-Chairman and Hu Jintao is the Chairman. If Xi Jinping’s recent disappearance was caused by poor health rather than political infighting, making him the leader could become a problem because Xi Jinping may not survive his 10-year term. Xi Jinping’s supporters were clashed with Hu Jintao’s group earlier this year because Hu Jintao wants to continue as China’s Military Commission Chairman for another 2 years. There is precedent for that as Deng Xiaoping also continued as China’s Military Commission Chairman for 2 years after handing over China’s reins to Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping’s supporters want him to have full control of the military and the civilian Politburo immediately after accession. They do not want Hu Jintao breathing down on them for another few years.
    Xi Jinping favors entrepreneurial and capitalist-style business but is also close to the military. If Xi Jinping’s ascension results in a slant towards the military, US President Obama may have new problems on his hands as China would assert more power in its neighborhood, causing erosion of US leadership there. With foreign reserves of more than $3 trillion, China already has more money than the US to buy influence with foreign leaders.
    China is not hostile to the West but its leaders have urgent need for their own survival to boost the economy and improve social equity for their people. That boost will inevitably confer more wealth and power to China, which will eventually make many in the West very nervous.

Comments are closed.