Wen versus Bo gets more explosive

2012-11-01Asia Times

BEIJING - It is certainly an important story, and because of that, there is more than one way to look at it. The long New York Times feature about the businesses of the family of China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao exploded like a bombshell in Beijing, just as the government was busy preparing for a historical Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress and the trial of former Chongqing Party Chief, Bo Xilai, who was toppled in the greatest political scandal since the fall of Lin Biao in 1971.

It is not clear whether the story and its timing was just a coincidence, more or less unfortunate, or if it was instead an artfully designed plan by any of the parties involved in the scandal, in the congress or in US-China bilateral relations. Even so, the story played on all these levels.

The details in the New York Times came out at the same moment that the government announced the expulsion of Bo, a neo-Maoist and known archenemy of Wen Jiabao, from his last position in parliament.

It may have been just a coincidence, but the publication of allegations about the Wen family's business interests through an American newspaper is bound to weaken the premier as the CCP prepares for the trial of Bo, against whom Wen did battle. Or the announcement of Bo's expulsion could have been a ploy by the Chinese government to reduce the impact of the expected attack against Wen.

In any case, de facto - and especially if seen coupled with an earlier report by Bloomberg on the businesses of vice President Xi Jinping - the New York Times article is important because it represents the first direct and forceful intervention of the US media in the Chinese political process, as veteran China watcher Pierluigi Zanatta pointed out to this correspondent.

The article reported with an abundance of data that not only Wen's wife and son but also his 90-year-old mother allegedly hold fortunes ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Most money was accumulated during Wen's tenure, according to the paper. The story is not new - it was an open secret for years - but the paper has provided a great amount of detail in making its case.

Wen was portrayed almost like a big moneymaker within the state, a new kind of Chinese satrap who is ready to push for the private interests of his family.

On the other hand, the newspaper did not mention Wen's commitment to political reform nor the central role that the prime minister has played in the battle against Bo's neo-Maoists. These are known facts, which perhaps would have given a different context to Wen's alleged corruption. Conversely, since all in China know about the dire confrontation between the two, Bo's people could well use the accusations against Wen to argue that Bo's corruption case was not so special.

This would not help to bring down the rule of the Party, crowded with corrupt officials, as the US story can suggest, as the Party has proved its great resilience time and again. But it could dent the attacks against Bo.

Bo also wanted to bring China back to the principles of Mao, cutting opportunities for private companies and concentrating power and money in the state. This strategy could have lead to a systemic greater corruption within the Chinese state, given the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises.

In this case the story might help Bo's political battle. In fact, in the evening, while the website of the New York Times was blocked by China, followers of Bo continued to circulate the incriminating article on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.

This is the second major attack by American newspapers against Chinese leaders. In past weeks, Bloomberg news agency published a report on the fortunes of the family of Xi Jinping, the man who after November 8 is likely to become party secretary and in March should rise to the post of president of the republic. Even then, it was a very detailed reconstruction, and Beijing's reaction was to cut off access to the article and block the service in China.

In a country whose political culture is shrouded in layers of suspicion and conspiracy theory, people are looking at who could have helped the two news organization in their work. It is more difficult in China than in Western countries to navigate the jungle of papers and financial statements as well public records without a guide or a hint as to where to look. Therefore, some people in Beijing believe it is likely that both the New York Times and Bloomberg were coached or helped in their research by men with an ax to grind against Xi and Wen. It could be an indication that people close to Bo are not yet ready to give up their fight.

Meanwhile, in the same hours, the official Xinhua news agency listed a series of serious charges against Bo Xilai, each of which could carry the death penalty. Bo is accused of complicity in the murder of Neil Heywood. Bo's wife has been already sentenced to death with reprieve for killing the English businessman. Bo is also accused of having caused his former police chief, Wang Lijun, to attempt to flee abroad - stuff of high treason. (Wang has also been sentenced). Then there is the matter of having promoted and named officials in contravention of the party rules, which can be more serious than other accusations, and finally there is the charge of having embezzled huge sums.

The political fate of Bo is already sealed, even if we do not yet know the date when the process will be done. But the avalanche of serious accusations suggests that the former head of Chongqing might even be executed (the last violent political death in China, ostensibly by accident, was that of Lin Biao in 1971). Or it could be the premise for a broad government campaign to purge all the last allies of Bo, who can be suspected of being behind the recent revelations.

As the offensive against allegedly corrupt leaders moves on to the next illustrious target, it could affect even President Hu Jintao.

Meanwhile, two immediate results are likely after this story. A minor one could be about imposing new and stronger brakes and limits on the activities of China's "red" business aristocracy. The major result is that the political battle around the next congress could be increasingly red-hot.  (2012-11-01 Asia Times)


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