Published : 2012-05-02 18:41
Updated : 2012-05-02 18:41
Now it has turned out in China that not only power corrupts, but also money. And what if the two join hand in hand?
The results are dramatic, tragic, and ruinous, as the cascading events in China show. For nearly three months since February, the world has been watching a drama with suspense and disbelief. Perhaps some sadness, too.
What I am talking about is the purge of Bo Xilai, who until April 10 was a high-flying Politburo member and a contender for top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Bo’s sudden fall from power is widely seen as the biggest political storm sweeping China since the violent crackdown of the democracy movement on Tiananmen in 1989.
Bo, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, is no stranger to people at home and abroad. His charisma and flamboyance set him apart from other party leaders who are interchangeably bland. Bo’s “Chongqing model” of governance featuring Maoist populism and political movements such as “singing red (songs)” and “smashing black (mafia)” has raised quite an eyebrow in Beijing. Yet he has established a following from those left behind in the nation’s economic boom toward prosperity.
That’s why rumors were swirling that Bo’s downfall was the result of power struggle not unlike what happened during the Cultural Revolution. Beijing has not said much about Bo’s sins except that he is under investigation for “discipline violation.” It has also been made known that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai is being investigated for her involvement in the death of British businessmen Neil Heywood last Nov. 15 in a Chongqing hotel room.
According to press reports, the case has blown open a can of worms that reveals a grave crisis threatening Communist Party rule: The government is so seriously corrupted by power and money as to be unsustainable.
Anecdotal media reports said Bo has used his power and influence to amass for himself and his family a fortune ranging from $160 million, according to The New York Times, to $6 billion if Asahi Shimbun is to be believed. Even $160 million is a mind-boggling figure, given the meager salary of China’s mandarins.
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times’ China hand and columnist, said it best: “In Chinese, the words for power (quan) and money (qian) sound alike, and in China one often translates into another.”
The phenomenon in China today was not envisaged by Lord Acton 160 years ago. He didn’t say money also tends to corrupt. He would have been flabbergasted to see the interchangeability of power and money in China. Kristof said one of his Chinese friends, whose father is a Politburo member, was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year simply to lend his name to a real estate company.
In today’s China, traditional values and virtues have been smashed by Mao’s cultural revolution, so the pursuit of wealth has become both the new culture and the new religion. So the flaunt of wealth, often ill-gotten, is faddish. China is said to consume two million bottles of Lafite red wine a year, while the French chateau can only produce 200,000 bottles annually for those who can afford $1,000 or $2,000 a bottle. At the same time, 300 million Chinese have no access to safe drinking water.
That’s why the a crisis is ominous, and why such a system, euphemistically called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, is unlikely to last forever.
Qiu Xiaolong, an award-winning Chinese-American novelist and poet who was Bo Xilai’s schoolmate at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in the early 1980s, hit the nail on the head when he wrote in The New York Times Friday that “with increasing economic inequality, the bankruptcy of traditional ethics, the rise of unbridled materialism, the absolute power of the one-party system leading to absolute corruption, people were simmering with frustration and discontent.” Qiu said that’s why the Chongqing Model looked attractive although Bo is not a true Maoist but “someone who believed in nothing except his personal interest.” Mao died a poor man, relatively speaking.
So, a question is being raised by the opened can of worms: Is Bo the only communist leader playing the power-money game and guilty of “discipline violations?” But who dares to cast the first stone?
This is only the first act of a gripping drama for the whole world to watch, to the embarrassment of Beijing which is running out of narratives. One can only hope that the crisis may also be an opportunity for political reform leading to a multiparty democracy and ending what Qiu Xiaolong called “the absolute power of the one-party system.” But that’s a long shot.
By David Kan Ting
David Kan Ting is a Chinese born journalist living in North America. ― Ed.