Among the many challenges facing China’s leaders, it might be the one that keeps them up latest at night: How do you prosecute one former Communist Party star with corruption charges as evidence mounts that others around him were amassing even greater family fortunes on the side?
The two narratives surrounding the Communist Party elite – that they’re simultaneously corrupt and hell-bent on fighting corruption – collided Friday. There was the expected news that one-time rising star Bo Xilai had been stripped of his immunity from prosecution, clearing the way for what’s expected to be the country’s biggest political trial since the Gang of Four were indicted following the Cultural Revolution.
The other headline, quickly made inaccessible within China, was a New York Times exposé into at least $2.7-billion accumulated by the family of Premier Wen Jiabao.
It all comes just weeks before a sensitive, once-in-a-decade power transition due to start next month. The outcome of that shuffle is still in doubt, with allies of Mr. Wen jostling for power against those once seen aligned with Mr. Bo.
The revelations about Mr. Wen’s family wealth followed an earlier Bloomberg report that traced almost $800-million in assets to relatives of Vice-President Xi Jinping, the man set to succeed Hu Jintao as Secretary-General of the Communist Party during a key party congress that begins Nov. 8. Mr. Xi is also expected to take over as President early next year.
Taken together, the reports highlight the bottomless can of worms the ruling party has opened by purging one of its own in Mr. Bo.
Until February, Mr. Bo was expected to join the elite Standing Committee of the Politburo during the long-planned power transition. Instead, he will stand trial for charges of massive corruption and abuse of power, as well as involvement in the cover-up of the murder of a British businessman.
His wife, Gu Kailai, has already confessed to poisoning Neil Heywood, a business associate, last November.
While the murder has dominated headlines internationally, the Communist Party has used its control of domestic media to portray Mr. Bo’s downfall as proof of its determination to fight runaway corruption within the party, a major cause of public discontent.
“Through Bo’s case, a principle was upheld – no matter how high the position a Party member holds and how influential he is, he will be held responsible and face severe punishment for violating Party disciplines and laws,” read a recent editorial on the Xinhua newswire. “The decision is another example in showing the [Communist Party’s] clear stance and firm determination to fight corruption. It will be welcomed by the people.”
So how does the Communist Party explain coming down so hard on Mr. Bo while ignoring the evidence against Premier Wen and Vice-President Xi? (Bloomberg traced a relatively paltry $136-million in assets to the Bo family.)
The short answer: They won’t. The English and Chinese versions of The New York Times website were blocked in China within hours of the story about Mr. Wen’s family’s assets appearing online. Bloomberg.com has been blocked since June, when its story about Mr. Xi’s wealthy relatives was first published.
The findings of the investigation into Mr. Wen’s family were in many respects not a surprise. It had been widely known outside China that his wife, Zhang Beili, was prominent in the country’s diamond trade and that their 40-year-old son, Winston Wen, was a well-known businessmanwhose career appeared aided by his family name.
But within China, the revelations could be explosive if they become widely known. Mr. Wen has become perhaps the most popular politician in the country by cultivating an endearing man-of-the-people profile. According to The New York Times, Mr. Wen’s 90-year-old mother controls, on paper, a financial-services company that was worth $120-million five years ago.
It was Mr. Wen who gave the green light to an investigation into Mr. Bo, his long-time rival, last spring. The New York Times report contained an intriguing hint that Mr. Bo’s allies may now have aided or encouraged the investigation into Mr. Wen’s finances. “[Mr. Wen’s] enemies are intentionally trying to smear him by letting this leak out,” an unnamed associate of the Premier was quoted as saying.