Chinese President Xi Jinping’s common prosperity campaign wants to redistribute wealth, but the past of top party leadership is shrouded in layers of corrupt deals and massive personal fortunes.
In the world of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there are winners and losers, and the roulette of corruption is endemic within the party.
Xi’s sister Qi Qiaoqiao and her husband Deng Jiagui are the owners of Beijing Central People’s Trust Real Estate Development Corporation Ltd. The couple’s real estate business has grown by leaps and bounds as they have been given best land by local government officials to seek favour from Xi Jinping. Deng Jiagui, Xi’s brother-in-law, was mentioned in International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)’s 2014 report on offshore accounts of Chinese elites.
According to real estate registration, Xi’s family owns a million-dollar property at the Braemar Hill Garden in Hong Kong, registered under sister Qi’s name.
In 2012, Bloomberg revealed that Xi’s extended family had total assets worth $376 million, which included 18% stake in the provincial state-owned Jiangxi Rare Earth and Rare Metals Tungsten Group. But none of these assets were traced directly to Xi Jinping or his wife, Peng Liyuan.
In 2014, The New York Times reported, citing Chinese records, that Xi Jinping had forced his extended family into selling their assets. Xi’s sister and brother-in-law moved their assets into Qinchuan Dadi Investment Company but didn’t sell most of their valuable assets.
The party is also waging a campaign against celebrities with foreign citizenship, but Xi’s own family is said to have multiple foreign permanent residency and passport holders.
New book throws light on party
Xi’s own murky business dealings are shrouded in mystery, even as other members of the Politburo Standing Committee have their fair share of a questionable past.
Han Zheng was promoted as party secretary of Shanghai, after a scandal brought down Chen Liangyu. A few months into the office, the party discovered that Han Zheng had stashed $20 million in an Australian bank, according to Desmond Shum’s book, Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China.
The book reveals the intertwined relationship between corruption and high politics in China. Shum and his wife Whitney Duan championed the guanxi model of using personal relations to seek access and business contracts.
The party tried to avoid another scandal by replacing Han with Xi Jinping. Han managed to evade any action and rose to the rank of Politburo’s Standing Committee member – a post he still holds. Han grew close to Xi Jinping after serving as his deputy in Shanghai.
In 2012, New York Times correspondent David Barboza broke an exclusive story on former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth totaling $2.7 billion, allegedly concealed under the name of Wen’s mother, Yang Zhiyun.
Shum disputes Barboza’s claims about him and his wife making a fortune from relations with Wen Jiabao’s family, especially from the purchase of state-owned company Ping An’s shares in Hong Kong listing. Shum claims Jiabao Wen wasn’t aware of his family’s business dealings and had expressed outrage when the scandal broke in 2012.
Another party leader who came into focus for his family’s business dealing is Li Zhanshu.
Li Zhanshu and his business dealings are said to have played a crucial role in pushing the Hong Kong National Security Law across the line. He “oversaw the swift passage of the new national security law for Hong Kong that handed the party a powerful new weapon to quash dissent,” reported The New York Times.
Xi Jinping’s strategy
“In China, officials never reveal their ambitions in public. Biding one’s time is a key tenant of Sun Tzu’s Art of War,” Shum writes in his book about the strategy adopted by ambitious leaders like Xi Jinping.
Maintaining a level of secrecy around one’s business dealings and ambitions is considered virtuous among Chinese leaders.
That’s the code Bo Xilai broke when he staked his name to the title of next General Secretary of CCP from 2007 onwards. Both Bo and Xi are sons of the two “immortals” of Communist Party, a term used for veteran leaders who fought alongside Mao Zedong against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek.
Bo marshalled the Chongqing model to battle growing corruption when he served as the municipality’s party secretary.
But Bo’s fortune turned for the worse following a scandal involving the death of British citizen Neil Heywood. Bo was sentenced to life in prison. Wen Jiabao supported Xi Jinping and made way for his rise to power.
Bo’s flamboyant mingling with the media was starkly different from Xi’s careful behind-the-scenes political jockeying that made the latter the current top leader of China.
Anti-corruption campaign was Xi’s preferred tool – with help from Zhao Leji – to dismantle any opposition.
“As Xi’s corruption campaign played out, I finally concluded that it was more about burying potential rivals than about stamping out malfeasance. Xi had already played a role in locking up his fellow princeling, Bo Xilai. He followed that by jailing Bo’s ally on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Zhou Yongkang,” Shum writes in Red Roulette.
The tight control over media and dwindling access of foreign journalists to Chinese leaders has made it difficult to report on corruption at the highest levels of the party.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)