x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

China urgently needs reforms after Wen case

Revelations about the wealth of his family members raise a serious problem for Wen Jiabao and the Chinese Government.

The penalty for corruption in China is death. That is just the most controversial aspect of a very public, largely ineffective campaign to combat cronyism and bribery in the ranks of government officialdom. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who is colloquially known as "Grandpa Wen" because of his popularity, has led the charge, calling corruption the single greatest threat to the ruling Communist Party.

That makes this latest report awkward, to say the least. Two days ago, The New York Times published an investigatory article alleging that the Wen family and their close associates have amassed $2.7 billion (Dh9.9 billion), mostly during his term as prime minister.

China's foreign ministry has denied the report, saying that it was politically motivated, and it's important to note that the Times does not claim that Mr Wen actually broke any laws, or was even aware of his relatives' business ventures.

For an anti-corruption crusader, in a country that is hypersensitive about wealth disparity and the perks of public office, it is an unfortunate stain on his reputation however.

This case threatens to be larger than Mr Wen, who is scheduled to leave office after the November 8 party congress in any event. The Chinese public is justifiably outraged at the pervasive graft in society, from bribes demanded by the lowest bureaucrat to the profiteering of the politically connected super rich.

Another scandal earlier this year saw Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing, one of China's largest cities, toppled on corruption-related charges (and allegations that his wife had murdered a British business associate). Mr Bo was formally expelled from the national congress on Friday. But the scandal, which has been called Beijing's worst crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, has hardly been forgotten.

The contradiction between the Communist Party's public statements and the cronyism that riddles the upper echelons is a poorly kept secret. Beijing has blocked the online edition of The New York Times to quash the recent report, but Chinese internet users are ingenious at navigating around the censors. Most people who are interested will be able to read up on Mr Wen's family fortunes.

What happens in China affects the rest of us. Despite its authoritarian political system, the country has engineered extraordinary growth over the past three decades and is a dynamo of the global economy. The political elite may have profited enormously, but they also carried off an economic miracle of sorts. Ordinary Chinese have every right to demand probity from officials whose greed is endangering that progress.