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Children of the revolution

17 février 2010

Children of the revolution


February 13, 2010

A sensational court case has exposed the
power and connections of China’s princelings, writes John Garnaut.

The arrest and kangaroo-court conviction of another
successful lawyer might hardly be worth mentioning in a place where
imprisoning, deregistering, or beating lawyers for doing their jobs is
becoming commonplace. But the case of Li Zhuang has generated a heated
10-week media and internet debate in China, and not just because of the
way it was carried out.

It is the first time a lawyer has been convicted of
coaching his client to lie on the basis of testimony from mobster, Gong
Gangmo, according to another respected lawyer (who has himself been
beaten and deregistered for representing the wrong kind of clients). The
4000-word character assassination planted in the China Youth Daily
straight after Li’s arrest was also unusual.

But it is the background to this case that makes it so
riveting for onlookers and disruptive for China’s political status quo.

The man who must have authorised Li’s arrest is Bo Xilai,
the only Politburo member who can comfortably wear epithets such as
colourful, mercurial or maverick. The Communist Party boss of the
central-west city of Chongqing has captivated the nation with a brave
but risky war against the city’s organised crime.

Bo got to where he is partly because he is the son of Bo
Yibo, one of China’s "eight immortals" – the tag for an exalted club of
revolutionaries who lived long enough to stamp their marks on China’s
reform era history.

The China Youth Daily hinted at the equally
impressive power behind the lawyer that Bo arrested: "As Li Zhuang
arrived at Chongqing, he began to play the peacock, saying many times
‘do you know my background? Do you know who my boss is?"

What the censors won’t let local media spell out is that
Li’s law firm is headed by Fu Yang, who is the son of Peng Zhen, also
one of the eight immortals and more powerful than Bo Yibo. Li’s lawyer
from the same Kangda law firm, Gao Zicheng, said he could not talk about
the background politics: "I can’t go there … »

But the fathers Bo Yibo and Peng Zhen were once factional
allies. Their families lived close together and were closely entwined,
often entertaining guests at a Shanxi restaurant they both helped to
open, says a Beijing political aficionado.

"Both Peng Zhen and Bo Yibo were loyalists of [Mao’s one
time chosen successor] Liu Shaoqi," says Huang Jing, a visiting
professor at the National University of Singapore. "This hate-love
relationship is certainly inherited by their children."

So it turns out that Bo Xilai has just spectacularly
arrested, convicted and rejected the appeal of a lawyer who works for
Bo’s equally powerful childhood playmate, Fu Yang.

The Communist Party has enjoyed enormous success in
turning China into a powerful nation and lifting its citizens out of
poverty. But the party is also a club that allocates political,
financial and social privilege to its members. It has its own internal
system of hierarchy and quasi-royalty, where revolutionary leaders
bequeath their status to their children and children’s children. Those
descendants are called "princelings" in China.

Mostly, China’s princelings get on with expanding the
national cake and carving it up. It was Bo Xilai’s own father, Bo Yibo,
who is said to have helped institutionalise the princeling nexus of
power and wealth in the 1990s by supporting a proposal that each
powerful family can have only one princeling in politics, leaving other
siblings to cash their political inheritances for financial ones.

But the case of lawyer Li Zhuang suggests the country may
not be big enough for all of them.

Political analysts say Bo is pursuing an audacious but
calculated political strategy. Most say he is appealing directly to the
people by implicitly attacking his peers, in the hope of forcing his own
promotion into the nine-member Politburo standing committee at the next
leadership reshuffle in 2012.

"Bo Xilai is indeed challenging the privilege of some
princelings to boost his own popularity," says Bo Zhiyue, an expert on
China’s princelings at the National University of Singapore.

It’s not impossible for an outsider to secure the right
patrons and make it to the top, like President Hu Jintao (who was
anointed by former party secretaries Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping).

Generally, however, modern China belongs to the children
of the revolution. All three officers appointed last year to the rank of
full general in the People’s Liberation Army were children of senior
party leaders. Xi Jinping, who many expect to be the next president, is
the son of a revolutionary hero. Eight or nine of the 25-member
Politburo are princelings (defined as having a parent or parent in-law
who held the rank of vice-minister or above), according to Cheng Li, an
expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institutution. In the
previous Politburo there were only three.

The strategic heights of China’s economy are also in
princeling hands.

The family of former president Jiang Zemin – whose
adopted father was a revolutionary martyr – pulls strings in the
telecommunications, railways and postal systems. The family of former
premier Li Peng – who was adopted by former premier Zhou Enlai – has
outsized influence over electricity production, transmission and
hydro-electric dam building. His daughter Li Xiaolin, who became famous
in Australia this week for her disagreement with Clive Palmer over a $60
billion deal, is at the helm of a major power generating company. Her
brother headed another large electricity company before being
transferred to help run the coal-powered province of Shanxi. Family
friend Liu Zhenya controls the electricity grid.

Distinctions between state and personal enterprise are
not always clear in China. Some of the most eminent princeling families
discreetly control large companies that are listed on the Hong Kong
stock exchange, sometimes in concert with Hong Kong’s mega-billionaire
families, and often through loyal personal secretaries or close
relatives who have changed their names.

Further in the background, Chinese political analysts say
the descendants of Marshall Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Wang
Zhen, Peng Zhen and Bo Yibo are China’s real political and financial
king makers.

Which brings us back to Bo Yibo and Peng Zhen’s children,
Bo Xilai and Fu Yang.

Overwhelmingly, China’s intellectuals and the legal
professionals castigated Bo Xilai (although not by name) for his
crackdown in Chongqing and for cloaking himself as a modern day Maoist
and making a mockery of the rule of law.

The intellectual tide seemed to turn last week when the
accused lawyer, Li Zhuang, shocked his own legal advisers with this open
court confession: "I fabricated evidence to deceive the police, the
procuratorate, and the court to exculpate Gong."

While that confession was itself clouded in controversy,
liberal opinion leaders began to reframe the debate. Li and his law
firm, Kangda, are respected for being very good at what they do. But
they are also welded into the elite of a Communist Party judicial system
that runs on kickbacks and connections.

It is no stretch to say the fathers of Kang Da’s three
founding principals ran China’s entire political-security and judicial
systems in the 1980s.

The law firm was itself spun out of the legal department
of an immensely profitable and unaccountable corporate-charity empire
called Kanghua, which was run by Deng Pufang, son of Deng Xiaoping.
Controversy about this type of cronyism was one ingredient in the build
up of public unease leading up to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of

All that concealed backdrop helps explain why Li was once
again the leading chat topic on leading blogging portals this week,
after a Chongqing court rejected his appeal but reduced his jail

"Bo is the great saviour of Chinese ordinary people,"
said one reader’s comment on the People’s Daily website. "Strike
hard against gangsters and black lawyers. Drag all their [mafia] uncles

And Bo hasn’t just locked up one well-connected lawyer
who may or may not have been doing his job. In China it is impossible
for the mafia to thrive without it being joined at the hip to the
Communist Party, as the open trials of some of Bo’s nearly 800 gangland
prosecutions have shown.

Wen Qiang, Chongqing’s former deputy police chief and
then justice bureau chief, was in court trying to explain more than 16
million yuan ($2.6 million) of suspected kickbacks and sheltering
mobsters such as his sister-in-law, "the godmother of Chongqing".

But it emerged in court for the first time this week that
the bulk of Wen’s wealth was acquired from payments received in return
for handing out promotions.

"The trial of the underworld has become a trial of
corrupt officials, » wrote Liang Jing, the pseudonym of a political
columnist on overseas Chinese language websites.

Yang Hengjun, one of China’s most influential political
commentators, had previously criticised Bo for his Maoist rhetoric and
politicisation of the legal process. Last week he took a different
course, skating close to the limits of permissible speech, after his
email inbox had filled to overflowing with unhappy readers.

Yang wrote that the whole debate about defending "rule of
law" in Chongqing was premised on the assumption that there was
actually something already resembling "rule of law" anywhere in China,
which there patently is not.

"If you are serious about spreading the ‘rule of law’ in
China I have a suggestion," he wrote.

"All legal elites and opinion leaders can join hundreds
of thousands of netizens in demanding that Chongqing’s fight against
gangsters be introduced across the whole nation so that it can terminate
unlawful ‘rule of law’ by corrupt officials."

In the end, writes Yang, debates about rule of law will
remain academic in China for as long as it is run by a one-party state:
 »Only a greater political system or democracy can provide an answer. »

Privately, close political observers in China say that
whatever you think of Bo Xilai or his personal motivations, he has
thrown a bomb inside Party Central. His public dissection of Chongqing’s
power and protection rackets invites Chinese people to worry and talk
more openly about whether their country is evolving towards some kind of
mafia state.

Some liberal thinkers hope Bo is a catalyst for those in
the system who are not beholden to "princelings" – perhaps the
Vice-Premier, Li Keqiang – to rise and challenge the party’s privileges.
But the party’s princeling bonds will be hard to break. To the extent
that they stick together they will loosen their grip on power only when
necessary to preserve it.

"Reporters have every reason to explore the infighting
among the princelings, » writes Cheng Li, at the Brookings Institution.

 »But I believe the princelings’ incentive for
co-operation and the need to share wealth and power are far more
important than their internal tensions and conflicts. »

John Garnaut is the Herald’s correspondent
in Beijing.

4 commentaires leave one →
  1. 19 février 2010 23 h 22 min

    Have you seen that one ? Actual case of internal dissent in the big ruling party. First title I gave (Amazing) was space to post critics for your expressed arguments. But found this later. You already knew about this case ?

  2. LEAVES permalink
    20 février 2010 6 h 57 min

    Yes ,I knew this case at the first time almost.Because I often read his article on FT is the England "Finance times ",they do the chinese edition in China.I get it everyday in my emailbox .

  3. 6 juillet 2013 18 h 00 min

    With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright infringement? My blog has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my permission. Do you know any solutions to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d definitely appreciate it.

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