The Changing Colour of Red

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A clutch of apparently disconnected events is pointing at deep churn at the top in China

A flurry of security manoeuvres at a Hong Kong hotel. A dying ex-President. A rich criminal extradited to Beijing from Canada. A bullet-train crash in China. An open letter to a little girl in a hospital room. What could they possibly have in common?

The answer is simple: each is critical to China’s emerging political landscape, though, as always in China, nothing is as it appears to be.

The five-star Grand Hyatt hotel in Hong Kong is buzzing with beefed-up security. There are airport-type metal detectors, plainclothes policemen with mysterious red pens sticking out of breast pockets. Hotel staff have told regular guests that they must produce their passports and hotel keys to access their rooms. An ‘Official Government delegation will be staying at the hotel from Tuesday 16 August to Thursday 18 August,’ a memo said. Staff have informed executive-class guests that the Grand Club Reception and Lounge on the 30th and 31st floor are closed off and that everyone may be herded off to the side if certain elevators are in use.

Finally, there is the red carpet unrolled at the hotel lobby on Tuesday morning.

China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 56, is in Hong Kong for a bit of flesh-pressing. He has mingled with locals, visited the elderly and looked in on Hong Kong’s Housing Authority.

Which is all very nice, but that’s not the point.

Li is a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politbureau’s Standing Committee—one of a clutch of nine (often identically dressed) men who make key decisions. His physical presence in Hong Kong is a symbolic announcement of the decisive shift in power taking place at the top. 

Willy Wo Lap-lam, a longtime China watcher and keen decipherer of the balance of titans in Beijing’s government corridors, says that Li Keqiang’s visit to Hong Kong “almost beyond doubt” means that Li will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao as China’s new Prime Minister following the 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012.

“Since the return of sovereignty to China in 1997, Hong Kong has received bi-annual visits from top leaders, but this is the first time a vice premier has come in his official capacity. It confirms the earlier arrangement that Vice Premier Li Keqiang will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao,” he says from Hong Kong in a phone interview.

Enter the retired, elderly but still immensely powerful ex-President Jiang Zemin, who casts a long shadow on China’s political proceedings from beyond the wings, affording shelter to his protégés—people he had groomed or promoted during his tenure in political power. As long as he lives, his clique was—or at least felt—safe.

Then, earlier this year, Jiang, who lives a quiet life in Shanghai, was rumoured to have fallen very ill. Political rumbles deepened when he failed to show up on 1 July 2011 for the all-important celebrations of the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary. A few days later, a Hong Kong TV station reported he had died, but China’s state media dismissed the story as “pure rumour.”

Lam says that Jiang Zemin is hooked up to life support systems and is not coming back.

“This clears the way for President Hu Jintao and leaves him much more room for manoeuvring. Jiang Zemin was his nemesis.”

Jiang Zemin, who played kingmaker, favoured another Politbureau member, Wang Qishan, for the country’s prime ministership. Wang had a higher international profile, although unlike Li Keqiang, Wang was not in the magic circle of the nine-member Standing Committee.

With Jiang Zemin neutralised by illness, President Hu Jintao found himself at liberty to move his own man, Li Keqiang, to the forefront and sent Li down to Hong Kong to announce to the world that he had won the battle.

There are other signs that President Hu Jintao is holding a trump card or two.

On Saturday, 23 July 2011, a rather sheepish-looking middle-aged Chinese man wearing trendy glasses touched down from Vancouver at Beijing’s international airport, only to be handcuffed and whisked off to jail. Lai Changxing, who for 12 years had been on the run from China’s legal system, had “seriously disrupted China’s economic order and created huge economic losses for the nation”, the Ministry of Public Security said. Lai had built an empire of luxury cars, oil and—some say—weapons, all smuggled into China.

The tentacled beast of his Yuanhua Group had a finger in every commercial pie, legal or not, and was at the core of what might be China’s biggest modern case of smuggling and corruption. Lai reached the zenith of his might in the 1990s, in the southern province of Fujian, having greased the palms of a vast network of Communist Party officials to look the other way, or actively help out. Lai’s tainted contacts snaked all the way up the Chinese political hierarchy, even touching Jiang Zemin, who had opposed any investigations into Lai Changxing, according to Lam.

When the authorities finally did begin investigations, Lai was tipped off and fled to Hong Kong and subsequently to Canada, in August 1999, taking with him bundles of evidence against layers of offialdom.

Now, in China, it is bruited that the ‘Man Who Knew Too Much’ will spend the rest of his days in a quasi-jail, the kind where he has access to steak and wine.

Lam says that if there is a trial, it will be held behind closed doors.

“If Lai Changxing were to spill the beans, and assuming he is telling a true story, people who might be directly hurt by Lai’s evidence include a host of senior officials, the Ministry of Public Security, as well as the Navy, which helped in the smuggling,” Lam says, “It would be a huge embarrassment.” 

“Lai Changxing is a kind of insurance policy for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” says another source. If any of Jiang Zemin’s protégés make a fuss, Hu and Wen need only point to Lai Changxing and threaten to make him talk.

That very same Saturday, 23 July 2011, that Lai Changxing returned to Chinese soil, a bullet train on the Shanghai-Beijing line crashed into a stationary train in east China’s Wenzhou city, killing 40 people and injuring several hundred.

In terms of the number of bodies, the crash is relatively minor. But for a number of reasons, this could be the accident that morphs into a flashpoint for popular resentment at the corruption soaking China’s system.

A little bit of history.

China’s Ministry of Railways is a unique phenomenon in the government structure. Right from the start when China became a young republic struggling to build itself, Dr Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), credited with being the republic’s founding father, stepped down as president to take up the Railway Ministry portfolio. That’s how important he thought a rail network was to develop a new country.

Leapfrogging ahead 100 years, China’s Ministry of Railways (MoR) is still the only ministry allowed to run businesses.

‘A dinosaur-like holdover from the pre-reform era, the MoR is the only unit of the central government that has full authority to oversee a multi-billion yuan business empire. Apart from running 91,000 km of railways, the MoR holds some 33 listed companies with [a combined] market capitalisation of 400 billion yuan,’ writes Lam in a recent report for a Washington DC think-tank called the Jamestown Foundation. The MoR even had its own system of police, prosecutors’ offices and courts, Lam writes. It was highly irregular, even by Chinese standards, Lam adds on the phone.

Early in 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao, with assistance from Li Keqiang, had tried without success to tame this muscular fiefdom, which was run by then Railway Minister Liu Zhijun. Liu Zhijun had solid backing from Jiang Zemin. In February this year, coincidentally, just as Jiang Zemin was suffering a heart attack, Liu Zhijun was put under investigation for alleged “severe violation of discipline”.

“Jiang Zemin was a major patron of the former Minister of Railways [Liu Zhijun],” Lam says, “The Ministry of Railways remained an empire beyond the control of the Prime Minister.”

Premier Wen Jiabao tried to use the 23 July crash to restructure the Ministry of Railways, without any success so far. But now, when Li Keqiang takes over, he is likely to make aggressive moves to break the MoR’s back, Lam says.

“Li Keqiang was personally involved in the 2008 efforts to reform the Ministry of Railways. When he comes to power in 2013, he will reopen the files,” Lam says.

The carriages of the ill-fated train lay strewn across the tracks on a bridge in Wenzhou, but angry Chinese netizens posted video clips of clean-up crew on the ground below pushing fallen bogeys into a sort of muddy trench, apparently for burial, without the authorities bothering to sort through for anyone who might still be alive—or search for evidence.

Special police captain Shao Yerong had received orders to halt rescue efforts, and lift the bogeys off the bridge tracks to the ground below. He disobeyed and continued his search, which is why he found Xiang Weiyi, a two-year old girl buried under rubble, who was still breathing.

Ordinary Chinese people exploded on the internet—with admiration for Captain Shao and rage at the government’s cover-up efforts.

‘I can only say, government officials these days have already gotten to the point where there is nothing they will not lie about… I feel helpless, I feel angry, our goodness/kindness is slowly being strangled/stifled. I look up towards the heavens and shout angrily, let the storm come more fiercely!’ wrote one netizen.

Then, China’s Economic Observer decided to ignore stern directives from the Propaganda Bureau to downplay the accident and splashed an investigative report slamming the accident. It published an open letter to the girl Xiang Weiyi, calling her the affectionate diminutive Yiyi. Its translation was published in The Wall Street Journal’s online China Realtime Report:

‘Yiyi, when you’ve grown up and started to understand this world, how should we explain to you everything that happened on 23 July 2011?… When the train whistle once again startles this silent land, will we reluctantly tell you about all the hypocrisy, arrogance, rashness and cruelty behind this tragic story?… Yiyi, how do we explain to you that, at that time, there were two completely different images of China: one blossoming in the midst of the people, the other hidden in officialdom… Yiyi, when you’re older maybe you’ll realize that dark night of July 23 was when things started to change. After that day, we won’t simply complain, but instead learn how to advocate and act.’

Vice Premier Li Keqiang, as he rubs shoulders with Hong Kong’s glitterati and dines with senior Hong Kong officials who might sport a faint British accent, would be forgiven if he privately quails at the mantle he now clearly looks set to inherit.