State media and China’s netizen community have taken a very different view about what happened on flight CA981 on August 29. The Air China flight to New York turned around seven hours after it took off, and flew back to Beijing.
The People’s Daily reported that the highly unusual incident was due to a “threat” and that the flight returned to the Chinese capital “to ensure the safety of passengers”.
But internet commentators – using the ubiquitous Sina Weibo service – speculated that the real reason for the detour was that a top official was on board attempting to flee to the US. One passenger posted a photo of the huge police retinue waiting as the flight disembarked, and said that a woman was immediately surrounded by officers.
Another commented that if there was such a serious threat, why had the plane not diverted to a closer airport? A blogger named Taoi wrote: “To me it means that whatever happened on CA981 was not such an emergency that the plane had to land right away; second, it had to be brought back to China for legal issues; and three, [it’s] not suitable to be publicised and had to be covered up.”
One passenger noted that the flight map on the inflight screen had started to show the plane was flying back to Beijing. But he was told by flight crew that it was an error. Now, the speculation is that the authorities didn’t want anyone on the aircraft to know that the flight plan had changed, perhaps to ensure that the fleeing official was as surprised as anyone when it touched down again at Beijing Capital International Airport.
Then again, if there was a genuine security threat it would have been an equally rational course of action.
The sensitivity over flight CA981 comes at a time when stories about fleeing officials continue to make headlines. Last week the Oriental Morning Post reported that the former Party secretary of Fengcheng – a county-level city in Liaoning province – had absconded to America with Rmb200 million. Wang Guoqiang seems to have fled in late April but the state’s propaganda apparatus sought to keep the news quiet. He’s thought to have amassed his fortune through kickbacks from a local heating company – a firm which saw its reputation savaged in Fengcheng when its products proved defective last winter.
Wang’s is hardly an isolated case of a Chinese official trying to flee in a bid to escape punishment. The central bank believes that at least 18,000 officials have skipped the country in the past, with an aggregate haul of $123 billion.
Nor is high-profile corruption anything new. Last December we wrote a big piece on a similar theme (see WiC131), after the deputy governor of Shandong province was arrested, suspected of accumulating billions in graft. In May the deputy governor of the Agricultural Bank of China was also arrested for corruption.
But, of course, the defining event of the year was the purge of former Chongqing Party boss and princeling Bo Xilai. In the wake of Bo’s fall it has emerged that he and his family had moved huge sums offshore, as well as likely received vast kickbacks from the boss of Dalian Shide (who was also arrested).
Soon after that these revelations (and somewhat inevitably) the focus shifted to how well other princelings – the children of Party elite – seem to have done in their business careers. “The downfall of Mr Bo has given the Chinese a glimpse of how their rulers have enriched themselves and awareness is growing of just how privileged the political elite really is,” warned the Financial Times.
That perception only worsened this week when the South China Morning Post earned a rare revealed that a princeling had been behind the wheel in a drunk-driving accident reported earlier this year. It now looks like the incident was hushed-up, happening as it did only days after Bo’s arrest. However, it has emerged from an internal Party investigation that the driver was the son of Ling Jihua, chief of the General Office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
The young man in question – Ling Gu – was driving a black Ferrari around Beijing with two semi-naked women when the sports car crashed at high speed on the North Fourth Ring Road.
“People will ask how Ling Gu would have afforded a Rmb5 million luxury sports car in the first place,” comments the South China Morning Post. “It will only confirm the public belief that the children of senior officials have rich and decadent lifestyles beyond the wildest dreams of the people.”
More bad PR is also likely later this month, reports 21CN Business Herald, when disgraced former railways minister Liu Zhijun goes on trial in Shenyang. Liu was arrested last year, suspected of taking Rmb1 billion of bribes from contractors wanting to win bids to build China’s high-speed rail network.
His trial will only focus public attention further on graft – and in particular how much of the Rmb4 trillion stimulus package was siphoned off by corrupt officials like Liu.
Officially speaking, China began a formal ‘battle against corruption’ in 1993. So far it’s been a losing struggle. In a revealing interview this month with Xinhua, a senior anti-graft official conceded that the level of corruption remained “grim” and the struggle was “arduous”. Li Xueqin, director of the research office of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, added that the situation was made more complex as many cases involve those “in high leadership positions”.
Another factor is that the public now has much more opportunity to ruminate on cases of graft, primarily on the web. This is something that WiC has also written about previously, as millions of internet users work up a fury over many of the more flagrant cases. Once an official has been targeted, the pursuit can be remorseless. Witness last week the now-traditional practice of demanding action over photos of officals wearing watches that look beyond their paygrades. In this case the timepieces were worn by a Shaanxi bureaucrat (they had a combined price tag of around $55,000, and included a Vacheron Constantin and a Rolex). Xinhua has since confirmed that the man in question, Yang Dacai, is now under investigation.
One result of the stream of scandals is the manner in which they are eroding faith in the fairness of China’s economic system. Put bluntly, many Chinese now feel that anyone who is rich must have behaved acted immorally to amass his (or her) fortune. A case in point is the Shide boss said to be in cahoots with Bo.
During the summer WiC also spoke to a businessperson with long experience of running factories in coastal China, but who now resides in the US. When asked if business success could be achieved in China without paying bribes, he smiled and said “impossible”.
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