Oct 26, 2012

L’amour est rouge

Yesterday, the New York Times informed that China had blocked access in its mainland territory to the English and Chinese versions of the newspaper’s websites (I do not know if at the time of writing access has been opened again). Even more, government censors were deleting references to the Times or to Wen Jibao, the country’s Prime Minister, on the Twitter-like site Sina Weibo. The reason for this is that the Times published an article on the wealth accumulated by the family of the country’s Prime Minister.

Under the title “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/business/global/family-of-wen-jiabao-holds-a-hidden-fortune-in-china.html), the lengthy article tells of relatives of Mr. Wen having carefully hidden investments in their name or being owners of companies that were awarded substantial government contracts. The activities of many of these companies are regulated by agencies directly under Mr. Wen’s supervision. Some kinds of explanations, even justifications, arise. For example, that there might actually be a problem, but that it is made much larger by Mr. Wen’s enemies, or that names of Mr. Wen’s relatives were “accidentally” used but in fact the real owners of those investments are other people. Then, there is a long description of the deals from which his wife and son have benefitted themselves.

This is not the only shock that the Chinese political elite has received recently. Last night (Friday in China), Bo Xilai, leader of the Communist Party in Chongqing and member of the National People’s Congress (the Chinese parliament) was expelled from the legislative chamber. This followed his expulsion from the Communist Party in late September under accusations of abuse of power, bribe-taking and violating party discipline. Apparently, it could be possible that Mr. Bo is not guilty of any of those charges (or, for that matter, did not commit them at particularly visible or scandalous levels) but, as the saying goes, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. His wife, Gu Kailai, was prosecuted and sentenced for the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, a crime in which Mr. Bo’s deputy, Wang Lijun, was also implicated (the crime came to public knowledge when Mr. Wang went into an American Consulate in China confessing the crime). Although Mr. Bo has not been directly implicated in the murder, it is unclear how much he knew about the crime and whether he helped is wife to get rid of the body of Mr. Heywood. International press has pointed out that the most important consequence for Mr. Bo being expelled from the National People’s Congress is that now he can be subject to a criminal prosecution.

These two cases are representative of some serious problems in the Chinese leadership. First, it might become each time more and more difficult to maintain the idea that “all problems are local”. Under this feature of the Chinese political system, authorities have been able to direct to the local level pressure generated for accusations of corruption, mismanagement, or irresponsibility of public officers, while Beijing politicians maintain the image that they work for the well-being of the people. Up to a certain point, the case of Mr. Bo fits into this category: although he was a member of the national parliament, he was also (and it could have been in the interests of the national political elite to underline that he was “first and foremost”) the local leader of the Communist Party. His expulsion from Congress is also a way of saying “we do not want you with us”.

But what to do not only when a member of the national political elite, but the Prime Minister himself, is exposed by the Western press in what could be a huge corruption scandal? Of course, the first reaction was to cut off access to that information. The next step could be to simply deny or avoid talking about it, as when Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice President, went missing for two weeks a month ago without any kind of explanation. Here is where the second challenge for the Chinese leadership comes about: succession. Although at a national level Mr. Bo was “just” one more Member of Parliament, he had been considered to join the Permanent Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, that possibility is now eliminated. Mr. Xi was also one of the names mentioned to become the next Secretary General of the Party and, consequently, President of China. It is uncertain what will happen to him. Finally, the Chinese political elite could be upset with the illegal benefits that Mr. Wen’s family has received through investments and contracts, therefore seeking to reduce the influence of his close group in the selection of the next generation of Chinese leaders. Even more, the date for the assembly of the Communist Party, where the next President, Prime Minister and Politburo are to be elected, had not been announced in late August or mid-September, as expected. Did the Chinese leadership actually face the question of what to do with succession under those circumstances?

As always what happens in such a hermetic country as China, it is difficult to obtain objective or certain traces of what is going on there. And when we get some information, it is usually just the final output, not the whole process that led to it. At best, we can make reasonable speculations with the little we can get. We will have to wait until November the 8 to get a more realistic image of what is going on in China; that day the Communist Party will have its meeting.


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