Anti-corruption drive futile while 'princelings' thrive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am

Two unrelated stories have caught the imagination of millions of ordinary Chinese connected to the internet during the past few months.

One involved Shenzhen propaganda chief Li Yizhen , who allowed local authorities to force students to watch a film written, produced by and starring his daughter. The second related to speculation on whether Wen Yunsong , a son of Premier Wen Jiabao , was the ultimate beneficiary of 713 million shares - worth $7.36 billion - of Ping An Insurance's initial public offering in Hong Kong in June.

In the first case, official media followed up on chat-room gossip and made scathing attacks on Mr Li, forcing him to issue a public apology. But he still failed to explain media claims of how his daughter, in her early 20s, could have accumulated personal wealth of more than 7 million yuan.

But in the second case, official media turned a blind eye to Wen Yunsong's business activities, despite intense internet interest.

The two examples provide an interesting footnote to the mainland's anti-corruption campaign, which the party leadership has said could decide the life or death of the Communist Party.

The fact that the official media could openly criticise a senior local party official like Mr Li while he is in office highlights the party leadership's increasing willingness to use the media as a weapon to fight widespread corruption among senior officials and their relatives.

But there is a line that the official media dare not cross - which is to comment on the business activities of wives and children of central government leaders, particularly members of the party's Politburo.

Unless the top leadership is willing to seriously tackle 'princeling capitalism', the anti-corruption drive will be futile. The term refers to the phenomenon of wives, children and relatives of senior government and party officials using their influence to make personal gain through their own business ventures or working with foreign companies.

During the past two years, the central government has sacked or jailed more than 30 senior party and government officials holding the rank of cabinet minister or provincial governor. In most cases, corrupt activities by their wives and children have been a key reason. Senior leaders have recognised this and issued a raft of regulations, the most well-known being the regulation requiring central government ministers, provincial leaders and even lower-ranked officials to report their assets to higher authorities and banning the relatives of these officials from working in the sectors they supervise. Mr Li fell foul of this regulation. However, the regulation does not seem to apply to higher-ranked officials.

'China has a saying - if the upper beam is not straight, the lower ones will go aslant. As long as the business activities of the wives and children of top leaders remain unsupervised, it is difficult to convince officials at provincial level and below to order their loved ones to behave properly,' one leading mainland academic said.

But the top leadership under President Hu Jintao appears to be trying to address this sensitive issue. Hu Haiqing , the president's daughter, is believed to have turned down lucrative job offers and is still unemployed since graduating from the Shanghai-based China-Europe International Business School with an MBA last year.

At Mr Hu's behest, his son has also kept a low profile and now works for an IT subsidiary owned by Tsinghua University, where Mr Hu himself studied.

An investigation into the Ping An share placement cleared Wen Yunsong, but speculation about the business activities of the premier's wife, Zhang Peili , refuses to go away. Ms Zhang is believed to have close links with one of the mainland's biggest jewellery companies based in Shanghai.

Mainland academics say the current leadership should learn from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping .

'Mao sent his son to fight in the Korean war in the 1950s and he was killed on the battlefield. He earned the respect of the entire nation,' one said.

Deng reportedly gathered his family members soon after ordering a crackdown on student demonstrations on June 4, 1989. Realising that popular anger against corruption was the main reason behind the unrest, he ordered his eldest son, Deng Pufang , to shut down the Kanghua conglomerate, which had been accused of corrupt practices.

'Official corruption is the biggest stumbling block in President Hu's efforts to enhance the party's ability to rule. To root it out, top mainland leaders must set examples themselves before they can convince others to do the same,' a mainland academic said.