Red Ferraris in Red China

BY Michael D. Mosettig  November 7, 2012 at 2:15 PM EST


Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard in front of the Great Hall of the People on Nov. 7 in Beijing, China. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

In the late 1960s, tens of thousands of young Chinese flocked to public squares during the Cultural Revolution, waving copies of Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book” and chanting its slogans for permanent revolution. Now, thousands of Chinese Internet users find their path blocked when they search the words “red Ferrari.”

The transformation has become a metaphor for the role corruption is coming to play in Chinese political life as the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress opens on Thursday to choose a new generation of leaders. For China analysts, from Washington to Hong Kong and Beijing, the question is whether nepotist corruption is an embarrassing irritant for the leadership or a symptom of much deeper problems and divisions.

Though neither was exactly a red Ferrari, cars driven by the young sons of top Chinese officials, a second generation of “princelings,” are at the center and have become the symbol of two of the most lurid corruption stories.

Both had tragic consequences, and one was hurriedly shut down. It involved never confirmed reports that in March the son of a top official and close associate of President Hu Jin Tao was speeding his black Ferrari down a Beijing highway, accompanied by two half-clad young women, when it crashed. The women were seriously injured. There is no word on whether the son survived, the party official, Ling Jihua was cashiered to a less important post, according to Christopher Johnson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. According to Johnson, the crash and cover-up provided an opportunity for former President Jiang Zemin to intervene in the leadership struggle with his successor Hu and potentially gain control of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo, which will run China for the next decade.

All this maneuvering was going on behind the scenes as the Chinese leadership was making a rare public brouhaha over Bo Xilai, putting his wife on trial for murdering a British businessman and drumming the ambitious leader of Chongqing province out of the party and any hopes of reaching the top rung of national power.

And yet another Ferrari. As stories were surfacing about his parents, the name of the 24-year-old son of Bo Xilai — Bo Guagua — started appearing, perhaps planted by senior Bo’s political enemies. Younger Bo is the classic princeling of a princeling. Elder Bo gets that moniker as the son of one of Mao’s original circle. Bo Guagua carries the entitlements of inheritance in an elite that has developed within two or three generations of the Peasant Revolution — an education at the British school Harrow, then Oxford and finally at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Pictures on his Facebook page show him in Harvard graduation robes; newspaper photos show him with arms draped around attractive blondes in slinky cocktail dresses. And on his Facebook page, a denial that he had ever dated the daughter of U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman while driving a red Ferrari.

At the moment, younger Bo’s whereabouts are a mystery, though he may still be living in the United States. His mother is in jail, and his father is being drummed out of the party and accused of infractions from corruption to adultery.

But even this is small stuff contrasted with the nexus of business, politics and nepotism at the heart of China’s ruling Communist party.

Veteran analysts such as Richard McGregor (author of the classic “The Party”) assert there is no line between commerce and politics and that business sustains the party as politicians tilt the tables to state-controlled enterprises and ostensibly private companies run by former apparatchiks or friends and family of key politicians.

This summer, McGregor’s newspaper, the Financial Times, ran a full-page wheel-of-fortune graphic and accompanying text showing the connection between 18 of China’s top politicians, their family members and array of enterprises from real estate to banking.

Last month, the New York Times went further, a lengthy piece detailing how family members of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao had amassed a fortune of $2.7 billion in a range of enterprises and investments. The Chinese response was to block the story on the Times’ website in China.

But will any of this publicity have any political fallout in China itself?

A gathering last week of current and former assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and the Pacific anticipated new troubles on the horizon. Richard Solomon, who served in that post in the George H.W. Bush administration, told a Georgetown University audience that China “faces the prospect of significant instability.” In a country of 400 million cellphones, he added, “the impact of the Bo scandal, pictures of his son with party girls all point to a growing alienation of the society from the leadership.”

Christopher Hill, who held the job in the George W. Bush administration, said, “The social compact may be coming apart. Society is outgrowing the political system.”

To describe the Bo Xilai saga as one of corruption, Hill added, “is like saying Moby Dick is a story about a whale.”

And Hill had a final warning for American observers and analysts who might think that relations with the United States are at the center of Chinese politics.

“This is not all about us but about how we treat China and manage relations when they have convulsions.”

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, will be watching wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he’ll write dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.