Three things to look at in the Bogu Kailai case

By He Qinglian on July 30, 2012.

At the time when the slogan “defend to the death the 18th National Congress” appears in China, the authorities announced that the trial of the Bogu Kailai case would commence in recent days. Without doubt, this action means top level officials at Zhongnanhai want to settle this case as quickly as possible. Hu Jintao intended to show his political rivals—both openly and secretly—that the Bogu Kailai case is a criminal one, it would at most implicate Bo only. Knowing this from Hu's speech in a hotel in early May, his opponents want it closed as soon as possible, for fear that dreary scenario would arise. 

There are several things to look at in this case.

First of all, Bo Xilai is involved, but how deep is that involvement?

What would please Bo Xilai's opponents the most would of course be the charge of murder conspirator, which would make Bo's return impossible. However, now it appears that to implicate Bo in that charge is somewhat difficult, so to make the relationship between Bo and Gu stand out, the surname “Bo” is purposefully added before the name of Gu Kailai; the harshest outcome for Bo Xilai would be the charge of knowingly covering up [for Gu] after the murder took place, and the most lenient would be not having properly oversee the conduct of his wife—a political responsibility that indicates the incrimination of Bo might not be possible. Zhongnanhai has made the decision, the trial is only ceremonial. What remains unclear is how big a concession Hu Jintao would be made to make by those who support Bo.  

If the adverse political impact of this incident on the Communist Party (CPC) is to be reduced to the minimum, then the political responsibility of Bo failing to oversee the conduct of his wife would be most suitable. Because in that way, Bo could be distinguished from Gu, and get more room to maneuver. Though such a treatment might not be possible in other countries, it would work in China.

Back in those years when the CPC addressed the issue of Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing, the latter became the “sewage bucket” into which the crimes the CPC committed during the Cultural Revolution went, and was accused as the ringleader of the largest counter-revolutionary group within the Party. Mao, despite being the husband of the number one counter-revolutionary in China, remains the great leader of the Chinese people. He didn't even have to shoulder the responsibility of not properly overseeing his wife.

The problem is, does the force that threatens the 18th National Congress of the CPC, or the force that makes the entire Party and the military to “defend the 18th National Congress to the death” has enough power to bring about this outcome? Although the highest authorities deliberately treat the criminal offense case of Gu Kailai as an isolated incident, the political features of this case could in no way be removed. No matter what the verdict would be, the case is related on the one hand to the political fate of the Bo's family, and on the other, the hidden power struggle of the 18th National Congress. How Bogu Kailai would be convicted would even be related to how the similar behavior of relatives of incumbent leaders who run business and became rich would be classified...(What Bogu Kailai would be convicted of would even be related to how the family and relatives of current leaders who run business and become rich would be characterized.)

There is one thing that weighs on my mind. Since the CPC established its rule, the slogan “defend the great commander chairman Mao to the death” appeared only during the Cultural Revolution; the slogan “defend the Cultural Revolution Group to the death” appeared only very briefly, there was never anything like “defend to the death” a certain plenary session of the CPC Central Committee. Even when Mao Zedong decided to fight a decisive battle against Lin Biao, then the number two man in China, he did not say “defend to the death the 9th National Congress”.

Therefore, the question what is the dreadful force that threatens the 18th National Congress is one that left the outsiders with a lot to ponder.

The second thing to look at: the way the authorities distinguish senior officials from their family members who abuse power for personal gain.

Since the economic reform, the safest way of collusion between officials and businesspeople is the “one family, two systems” in political families. Not every one of the family members of a top official is competent in business, yet the power in the hands of their householders could be used as the “gold finger”.

In China, as a result of the economy being part marketized, part manipulated by administrative power, there is only a market economy with incomplete competition. The feature of which is power at one end, and the market at the other. For power to be cashed, the existence of a market is a must. Only by closely operating at both ends could one become rich quickly. And the best way to do this would be “one family, two systems”, which means the householders work in the government, while their wives, children, and brothers run businesses. This fetter of blood and kinship is more reliable than that of acquaintances, people of the same hometown, classmates, and close friends.

To be fair, families of top Chinese officials in general implement this model of “one family, two systems”. In recent years, there are quite a few reports of businesses run by red families with names identified and clear facts in key Western media like the Financial Times, Reuters, and the New York Times. To convince my fellow compatriots, I quote here from a report published in 2010 in the People’s Forum, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, which openly admitted that red tycoons became the integral part of the new rich in China. Merchant families of this kind have in their disposal profound political capital, which gave them a head start and facilitate their easy access to social resources. Families like this are generally in the trading industries that require clearances, the basic industries, and the energy industries. The real property industry, too, is a field that many red families love. Without the backing of power, how would these red families emerge?

Such a differentiation could hardly be done in democratic countries, as there are free media and public opinion. Yet in China, with the media under the Party’s control, this is possible, and there are several ways to achieve this.

For example, as those netizens who think very highly of Wen Jiabao said, the fact that Wen’s wife Zhang Peili and his son Wen Yunsong reaped huge profits from their businesses was made possible by Wen’s subordinates who intended to please their boss. Wen himself has no knowledge of that.

Likewise, after the Bloomberg revealed recently the assets owned by Xi Jinping’s elder sister and her husband, Xi Jinping, too, got the same kind of sympathy. Some said the business run by Xi’s elder sister’s family has nothing to do with Xi Jinping himself; others simply accused the Bloomberg of libel.

Another way to do this would be to follow the example of Li Xiaolin, daughter of former Premier Li Peng, widely known as the “princess CEO”, who claimed publicly that her success is achieved little by little, step by step, and she only reached her current status after much hard work. Her famous words are “Without ability, all capitals are nothing.” If Gu Kailai would shoulder a larger share of responsibility, she could perfectly say that she has been swindling and bluffing using Bo’s name without her husband knowledge. And Bo would only have to take the responsibility of negligence and failing to fulfill the duty of a householder.

The third thing to look at: how would the six billion that was moved abroad through Bogu Kailai be recovered?

Of all questions, this is the most important one because most of the top officials’ families have overseas deposit of varying amounts. After the trial, the issue of chasing back the six billion US dollar assets of Bogu Kailai would definitely arise. The Arab Spring began in January 2011, and as a result of the Dictator Assets Law (passed in October 2010) becoming effective in Switzerland in February 2011, the assets to the names of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi were frozen and would be returned to the countries they once ruled within a given years.

However, if Bogu Kailai placed her deposit in Switzerland, she could rest assured that her money would stay untouched. I learned from a reliable source (confidential) that Switzerland does not think China is a dictatorship. Instead, that country sees China as a regime of collective leadership, none of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee is deemed dictators. Bo Xilai, a member of the Politburo and the Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Party Committee, is of course not a dictator, and hence his money would not be chased back.

But in American and European banks there is a Politically Exposed Person Database, and top Chinese officials in the Politburo might find their assets already registered in it. Yet, as China is a country where a hierarchy of corruption exists, and officials of all rankings transfer their assets abroad through a myriad of means, even if those banks left no details overlooked, they could not have grasped all of that data. Since there is no precedent as to how they would respond to Beijing's request to hand back the assets of a dictator, the handling of Bogu Kailai's fortune this time serves as a rare learning opportunity for top officials inside China.

And without doubt, Beijing has not yet officially announced how much money Bogu Kailai has channeled out of China through her French and British friends. The figure six billion foreign media came up with from the tips insider informants gave them might shrink to 600 or even six million. After all, the nine current members of the Politburo Standing Committee are in the same boat together, they would have to take into account the interest of other officials of their term.

As for the murder of a foreigner, the nine members saw it as an isolated incident and they figured that there is no need to shield Bogu Kailai's mistakes.

If a political incident that caused a major upheaval in the politics circle of China, that made international media write tens of thousands of words on it, and that even threatened the forthcoming National Congress, ends up being treated as a disciplinary problem of a certain comrade for his negligence of his wife's criminal acts, one wonders how that should be written into the glorious history of the Communist Party.