A Chinese Story for Our Time, Li Wei

Mar 1, 2011
Editor’s Note: “Public Nepotism,” Caijing magazine’s Feb. 14 issue cover story, chronicled the rise to fame of Li Wei, a French-Vietnamese woman who entered China’s Yunan Province as a refugee in the late 1970’s. She later amassed a billion-dollar fortune by exploiting her sexual relationships with senior Communist Party officials and influential business people. Unlike typical mistresses who only receive money from their patrons, Li developed her own multi-billion dollar business empire. At its peak, it consisted of almost 20 companies in the most lucrative industries: tobacco, real estate, advertising, oil and securities. Li’s long list of influential lovers (surmised to be at least 15) included the former Shangdong Province Party head, a former provincial governor, and the former president of Sinopec. Many of these men have been sentenced on corruption charges. While Li was investigated, she managed to walk away with minimal loss to her fortune.

The Caijing article gave a detailed account of how Li as an astute businesswoman worked with officials to monetize political power. At least three Chinese newspapers have been criticized by provincial authorities for reprinting the article.

Li Wei, known as the “common mistress of high officials,” was released without a criminal trial on Feb. 13. Judging from a media report, Li’s loss was no more than “signing documents to transfer her 20 percent share in Beijing Sinopec Shouchuang Petroleum Investment Company to the Beijing Capital Group.” Most of her overseas assets were not touched. Compared to the fates of other mistresses of corrupt officials or the officials who helped her build her empire, Li is extremely lucky. She has completely lived up to Chinese officialdom’s criteria for a truly successful person.

I have grown wary of official mistress stories, due to the spate of them in recent years. I was compelled to read through the Caijing story solely due to these sentences in it. “Looking back at her path, the ups and downs of the refugee billionaire has been an example of the ‘Chinese dream.’” Though many mistresses like Li Wei have been the protagonists of China’s fortune legends, none have been publicly associated with the “Chinese dream.”

What distinguished Li Wei from tens of thousands of mistresses are her own outstanding abilities. But after reading over the story, I’m still more interested in dissecting the political system and environment that created Li Wei and those like her.

There is no doubt that Li Wei is extraordinary. In the prevalent power-sex deals, the majority of women have played a passive role, selling themselves for job or educational opportunities.

 Just look at examples of how female college students approach job hunting these days. Many female college students have been sexually harassed during job interviews. This type of quid pro quo is rampant throughout different industries in China.

 I was incensed when I saw how some old professors use their privileges to make sexual advances toward capable and talented female graduate students: how male Chinese intellectuals shamelessly seek free “services,” while seeing to it that the most elite of Chinese women lose their dignity. In today’s China, few women not from privileged families can escape the harassment of corrupt men.

 In a country where the dignity of women is rampantly infringed upon, some would argue that Li Wei appears to have made best use of her assets and abilities. The fortune fests she took part in included almost all of the pillar industries in China: oil, real estate, stock market and finance. In this respect, few have done better than Li Wei—not even former Premier Li Peng’s daughter, Li Xiaolin, who heads China’s power industry.

Li Wei has distinguished herself as more than a “public mistress” of senior officials. She provided the “market” where political power is monetized. The officials favored Li for her well-managed connections with major players in the power market. Li had the keen foresight and capacity for implementation rarely found in other women.

When one of Li Wei’s early acquaintances, Yunnan governor Li Jiating, was brought to justice, she realized that she needed a gigantic network instead of betting on only one person, so she took steps to build that network. She did not rely solely on her sex appeal, but more on her understanding of people and the wisdom to gain trust from so many powerful men. The large financial returns she reaped made her more attractive than those girls who merely take money from their lovers.

Though Li Wei was made the focus of the Caijing report, the story is in fact more about the men who plunder public fortune. The true essence of the story is the commercialization of China’s political power.

With Li Wei’s story in mind as a unique product of our time, I won’t quote Charles Dickens by saying, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” since I don’t see any good in this time. But I’m sure the Chinese of our time have contributed more real dramas, beyond any novelist’s wildest imagination, than in any other period in human history.

No matter with what sentiments future generations will look back upon our time, Li Wei’s story will always be a representative episode of the Chinese dream and fortune legends of the 21st century.

He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the U.S., she authored “China's Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.