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SANDERS: The politics of bling-bling

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2012

As more details seep around the Great Firewall that Beijing's masters once thought would suppress all dissident blogging and as contradictory explanations emanate from Party sources, the case of Bo Xilai and his wife becomes all too familiar.

For those who have tried to follow happenings over the past two decades since Maximum Leader Deng Xiaoping pontificated that "to get rich is glorious," there has been the constant spectacle of officials looting the public treasury and government-owned companies and banks. Not only has a bloated elite made every European luxury-goods producer increasingly dependent on Shanghai and Beijing boutiques. Revelations of Party higher-ups sending money - often along with their children to expensive Oxbridge and Ivy League schools - abroad have become all too familiar, however unsatisfactory government media accounting of the final determination of such affairs.

Among the many Chinese statistics we cannot rely on is capital flight - although we do get proof of continued hemorrhaging in that other model for state capitalism, Vladimir Putin's Russia. But anecdotally we know hundreds of millions, probably billions, of dollars have been socked away overseas - sometimes accompanied into exile by their owners. (One couple formerly running a provincial bank sought U.S. political asylum after Chinese authorities sought their extradition for allegedly stealing tens of millions of dollars - before the couple turned up in Vegas. Where else?) Nor is it entirely clear whether one of Deng's sons is not one of these chaperons of looted cash holed up in San Francisco.

The vaunted exploits of Mr. Bo, the former gauleiter of Chongqing, a "princeling" and an offspring of one of the "Eight Immortals" of the Chinese Communists' rise to power, are now rapidly turning into nonhistory. Not for the Chinese Communist Party Stalin's notorious public show trials of the 1930s against "enemies of the people." Those who fall from grace in China quietly disappear - if not among the notoriously large numbers executed, far more than all the rest of the world combined. (Beijing has promised an end to the now-acknowledged sale of executed prisoners' body parts.)

Not only has Mr. Bo been removed from his Party positions, but his wife has been accused of helping - with a "butler" right out of Mary Roberts Rinehart - to knock off a former British commercial partner. At the time London didn't protest - the Briton's Chinese wife living in Beijing was hardly in a position to do so - when he turned up dead in a Chongqing hotel room, first diagnosed as a victim of alcoholism although he didn't drink, and then of a heart attack though he had no record of cardiac disease. But now with Mr. Bo's fall from grace, London is asking questions. Mr. Bo's wife, a general's daughter, and the talented British businessman apparently were a cabal trying to get their loot to safer places than the nonconvertible yuan. That's particularly critical now that China's phenomenal growth is slowing and speculation on the "inevitability" of a rising yuan being convertible to the dollar sometime in the distant future is receding.

That the scandal was a family affair is reinforced by tales of the Bos' son, tootling around Beijing in his red-hot Lamborghini, getting into a hassle with a traffic policeman when he dropped in on restricted parking space near the American Embassy residence, allegedly en route to a date with former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman's adopted ethnic Chinese daughter. Chinese Embassy officials in London had reportedly helped the younger Mr. Bo through Britain's old-line Harrow despite his reputation for partying and his more recent enrollment at Harvard may also have had "assistance."

Bling-bling (conspicuous consumption) in all its ramifications is not, of course, a Chinese monopoly. Extravagant vacationing by America's first family has led to justifiable criticism in a time of deep economic suffering. Ironically, the General Services Administration was originally organized by President Truman after his World War II Senate investigations of fraud to more efficiently police government operations. Now it turns out, GSA has become sponsor of expensive "outings" for its personnel, a scandal posing some more serious governance questions. That personal corruption reached into the president's Secret Service security detail in a dangerous foreign environment at a major international conclave goes beyond any routine concern with problems of waste and even corruption.

Is this then an era of worldwide bling-bling?

Comparisons are tempting, if obviously something of a stretch - if only because of their differences in magnitudes.

Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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