IT all began with a dead body, in a hotel in the Chinese city of Chongqing. The corpse belonged to a British businessman who was said to have drunk himself to death — odd, considering that he rarely drank.
Then a vice mayor sneaked out of town, by some accounts disguised for a time as an old lady, and entered the American Consulate in Chengdu to whisper a tale of murder.
One of China’s most prominent politicians, Bo Xilai, has been kicked out of the Politburo. His wife is detained on suspicion of murdering the British businessman in a dispute over his fee for supposedly smuggling ill-gotten family money abroad.
“Bo’s downfall shows the need to restrict government power,” Caixin, a daring Chinese magazine, declared in an editorial, adding, “At this stage of its development, China offers too many temptations, and the collusion of money and power is commonplace.”
Even good people are on the take in China these days, because everybody else is. Chinese doctors take cash from patients’ families before surgery. Journalists take bribes to write articles. Principals take money to admit students.
One Chinese friend of mine was a judge in corruption cases, and made a good living taking bribes from defendants. Another friend, the son of a Politburo member, was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year simply to lend his name to a real estate company.
Officials have a maddening sense of entitlement. When I lived in China, my wife and I once attended a party with many middle-age officials (including one now in the Politburo) and a crowd of trophy female secretaries. One cabinet minister mistook my wife, who is Chinese-American, for a secretary and crassly made moves on her. Let’s just say that my wife ruined his evening.
The scale of corruption has become mind-boggling. Zhang Shuguang, a railways official, managed to steal $2.8 billion and move it overseas, the state news media have reported. A Chinese central bank report suggested that 18,000 corrupt officials had fled China and taken $120 billion with them. The average take was almost $7 million per person.
The backdrop is the staggering wealth enjoyed by the elite. More than 300 million Chinese lack access to safe water, but one tycoon’s home I visited had an indoor basketball court, a movie theater and a pond with rare fish worth up to tens of thousands of dollars each.
In Chinese, the words for power (“quan”) and money (“qian”) sound alike, and in China one often translates into another.
Ordinary Chinese view the contradictions clearly. You see that in the jokes making the rounds in China, like this one:
Three men meet in Qincheng Prison, where political offenders are often kept. The first one says: I am jailed for opposing Bo Xilai. The second says: I’m here because I supported Bo Xilai. And the third says: Dang it, I am Bo Xilai.