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.

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