Politics & Int'l Affairs

‘Bo Xilai And China’s Corrupt Secrets’: David Ignatius

David Ignatius

My mom, an ever vigilant China watcher, alerted me to ‘Bo Xilai And China’s Corrupt Secrets’ by David Ignatius. Had she not, I would likely have missed the article and its two key and very important points:

‘The Bo Xilai affair offers a reality check for anyone who’s worried that a rising China will supplant the United States anytime soon:

‘First, the Chinese know that the scandal is just the tip of an iceberg of corruption menacing the country; and

‘second, the leadership in Beijing understands that the scandal could have been much messier if the White House hadn’t kept quiet the past two months.’ [spacing added]

Regarding the first:

The corruption that surfaced in the Bo case is hardly unique to Chongqing. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, says that similar patronage networks operate across the country. Top party officials use their relatives to collect bribes, through payments to law firms or private equity firms, much as Bo did with his wife. Even the most respected officials, such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, are said to have close relatives whose behavior is questionable.

For those who make China their day jobs, this is old hat. But, in following Bo and ensuing scandal, I hadn’t stopped to make the connection that Mr. Ignatius makes in his second point:

Here’s where the United States plays a steadying role for a still-shaky China. When the Chong­qing police chief, Wang Lijun, walked into the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in early February, he was carrying the equivalent of political dynamite. He apparently had documents to back up his allegations about Bo and his wife and their cronies. But after debriefing the cop, the State Department contacted senior Chinese officials in Beijing (as opposed to Bo’s henchmen in the province), who came to Chengdu and put the talkative police chief on a plane to the capital, where he’s now in custody.

The United States could have gone public with the scandal and made trouble for the Chinese, big-time. Instead, the State Department (backed by the White House) decided to treat it as an internal political matter involving a corrupt local police chief. Some Republican legislators are complaining that Washington spurned a potential defector, but that’s silly. Using such a local police chief to play political games would have been a mistake, and administration officials made the right call.

The U.S. actually did have a number of options. And, it chose the one that most benefits the relationship with China. In the swirl of frankly fascinating scandal that grows larger every day, it’s easy to miss what a good call the U.S. made. American wuwei–the U.S. did not nothing and everything got done.

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