Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
Wang Xiangwei
Wang Xiangwei

Corruption trials expose roles of the "white gloves" who manage the ill-gotten gains

A corrupt official needs two things: a mistress, and a facilitator to manage the ill-gotten wealth and money-making opportunities for the family

The innocuous-sounding euphemism "white gloves" generally refers to a middleman or outfit that launders dirty or corrupt money under a seemingly legitimate front - dirty hands concealed by a pair of white gloves.

The expression, coined by the Taiwanese, is catching up fast on the mainland as rampant corruption is exposed at all levels of the bureaucracy.

Indeed, just as there are mistresses behind every corrupt senior official, there is also "a pair of white gloves" in the wings to help their families make their fortunes and manage them.

The recent trials of Bo Xilai, once the mainland's most flamboyant politician, and Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, shed a rare but interesting spotlight on the crucial role of the white gloves in helping them amass their fortunes and financing their decadent lifestyles.

The pay-off for the white gloves, who are usually smooth-talking businessmen, is the chance to enrich themselves even more fabulously by leveraging ties to powerful politicians and gaining inside information.

In the five-day trial of Bo last month, probably the mainland's most closely watched court case in decades, Xu Ming, an entrepreneur from Dalian (where Bo built his political career) and the alleged white gloves for the Bo family, provided crucial evidence that was expected to put Bo away for a long time.

According to transcripts released by the court, Xu funnelled tens of millions of yuan in bribes to Bo's family, including his wife Gu Kailai and their son Bo Guagua . They showed that Xu gave the family a US$3.2 million villa on the French Riviera, flew Bo junior and his friends to a safari in Africa, and settled the hundreds of thousands of yuan in debt that Guagua ran up on his credit card.

The white gloves for Liu was the businesswoman Ding Shumiao who accumulated a personal fortune of about 2 billion yuan (HK$2.5 billion) by using Liu's connections to secure lucrative contracts for China's trillion-yuan high-speed railway projects.

According to media reports, Ding, her daughter and their representatives charged hefty commissions on more than 50 high-speed railway projects with a total of 180 billion yuan.

As revealed from the court trial transcripts and state media reports, corrupt officials deliberately keep some distance from their white gloves to give them room for deniability. The facilitators usually take care of the parents and children of the powerful and provide lucrative opportunities for their relatives to make easy money.

In Bo's trial, one farcical episode saw Bo asking Xu about a dozen times if he had informed Bo about his efforts to bribe his wife and son, to which Xu replied "no" each time. But the prosecutors cited the testimony of Gu Kailai of how she repeatedly told Bo about Xu's generosity.

In Liu's case, the prosecutors also failed to provide any direct financial dealings between Liu and Ding even though state media reports suggested that Ding spent more than 50 million yuan to finance a romantic TV series, which helped introduce a dozen budding actresses to sleep with Liu. Ding also reportedly spent tens of millions of yuan, on Liu's orders, to bribe officials to go easy while investigating one of Liu's close associates.

Given their intricate backroom deals and tacit agreements with their money managers, it has been difficult to pinpoint the exact wealth stashed away by corrupt officials.

A crucial piece of evidence against Bo was that the French villa paid for by Xu was listed as being owned by a woman who once worked for Xu.

Liu was given a suspended death sentence for receiving 64.6 million yuan in bribes. Some media reports suggested Ding was holding the 2 billion yuan for Liu as he intended at some time to use some of the money to bribe his way to a more senior government job.

The white gloves may remain low-profile but they are well-known in the circles of the powerful and elite. Of course, they are also known to anti-graft investigators. Once the mainland leadership decides to go after a certain official, the anti-graft investigators first try to grab one of the white gloves. In Liu's case, the investigators first detained Ding and her daughter, which quickly led to Liu's arrest.

Now as the leadership takes the unprecedented decision to investigate one of their own - Zhou Yongkang , a former security tsar and former member of the Politburo Standing Committee - it comes as no surprise that authorities have already detained a Sichuan businessman, Wu Bing , the alleged white gloves for the Zhou family.

It seems those who wear the white gloves are leaving their fingerprints everywhere.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: White gloves and dirty money