The Bo Xilai scandal that has exposed deep rifts at the heart of the Chinese political system and grown into an international saga of spy-thriller dimensions led this week to the arrest of Bo’s wife under suspicion of murder. Now it is evolving into a larger indictment of corruption in China.The NYT reports that Chinese authorities continue to hammer down on Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, but they are turning their focus from investigating the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, to the couple’s ill-begotten wealth, accumulated over the years by shrewdly overlaying business dealings with political connections. Jiang Weiping, a journalist quoted in the story, put it this way:
Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai really didn’t have separate careers…They operated like a single unit. His career was devoted to power; hers was to money.
While Bo rose through the ranks, from mayor of Dalian to party secretary for the province of Chonqing, by waging a brutally efficient war on crime, his wife, a lawyer, built a business around her husband’s influence:
In the early 1990s, when her husband was mayor of the seaside city of Dalian, Ms. Gu established a law firm, and later a consultancy, that helped ease the path for businessmen seeking to develop property in the city — a process that her husband essentially controlled. . . . Ms. Gu’s firm flourished by serving as a gatekeeper to her husband and his powerful government associates.
She was, in other words, no Ann Romney. According to the story, Bo’s wife has been a director of eight privately held companies in Hong Kong, and started a company in Dorset, in Britain. And Bo’s brother received a million-dollar salary and stock options worth $25 million for his work at a state-owned company, China Everbright Holdings.The former Chonqing police chief who first unleashed the scandal, when he sought refuge in the American consulate out of fear of retribution for investigating Bo’s wife for her role in Heywood’s murder, claimed that Bo’s wife transferred hundreds of millions of dollars abroad.In exposing every detail of how Bo’s wife and entourage harnessed personal political connections to fatten their pockets, Chinese authorities are also indicting a wider segment of China’s political elite, for whom family connections also turn into lucrative business opportunities.As Steven Tsang, a British academic quoted by the New York Times, put it: “This is why the dog who has fallen into the water is still being beaten.” Bo is in the spotlight but his corruption and wealth are not so atypical. As the morality tale widens its scope, expect to see much more talk about China’s intolerance for corruption.L’affaire Bo Xilai confronts China’s rulers with dilemmas that cannot be resolved without pushing the system toward change. On the one hand, Bo’s rise threatened the foundations of China’s collective leadership. This is a man who wanted to rule China, not serve as one member of a bland collective leadership. And he had found the secret to building a mass constituency outside the Party hierarchy: Maoist rhetoric, crackdowns on the rich in the name of fighting corruption, collection of bribes from panicky rich people hoping to escape your crackdown, high profile (if mostly rhetorical) criticism of the growing gap between rich and poor.Bo had to be stopped before his personal charisma and power destroyed the collective leadership model that has run China since Mao’s death. But to destroy him, it was necessary to discredit him, and that required turning the searchlight onto the crimes and hypocrisies that accompanied his rise. The links between business and politics, the culture of corruption, the manipulation of family ties, the rewards of elite status in the red aristocracy: the news about how Bo operated confirms Chinese suspicions and deepens their cynicism about how their system operates and what their rulers are like.The Party had to bring Bo down; it could not bring him down without weakening itself.China is changing; it has developed too fast and too chaotically to be easily controlled by a one party system, and technocratic nepotism is unlikely to survive as an enduring social model. The crisis it now faces as it attempts to modify its development model (export oriented growth based on manufacturing prowess) is going to test the resiliency of its system even as China’ s increasingly active and self aware public opinion demands a more responsive — and less corrupt — government.Nobody knows hos this will work out, but China’s political system cannot remain frozen in time while China’s economy and its society undergo revolutionary change.