(Update 4/20/2012: see update section below with response from Branigan.)
There has been a lot of rumor mongering going on in the Western press about Bo Xilai and the alleged murder of British citizen Neil Heywood by his wife Gu Kailai. In an otherwise fairly well researched article by Guardian U.K. reporter, Tania Branigan, there were couple of crucial errors that were uncalled for. This scandal is indeed one about corruption. However, as Premier Wen recently said, corruption is the most critical problem China faces today. That view is unanimous across the whole country. Insinuating the Chinese government not sincere about it is ridiculous.
Corrupt officials smuggled 800bn yuan (£80bn) out of the country and around 17,000 people fled abroad between the mid-1990s and 2008, according to a report that China’s central bank released last year, apparently unintentionally.
Since Branigan didn’t cite any fact backing up “apparently unintentionally,” my conclusion is that this accusation is a purposeful attempt at defaming the Chinese government. In fact, reporter Yan Jie, wrote about that report in China Daily and cited those figures in June 16, 2011.
China over the years has been trying to extradite embezzlers with mixed success. For example, Yan Yongmin(闫永明) fled to New Zealand with 100 million RMB, and apparently succeeded using political asylum. In July 2011, a Canadian court agreed to Lai Changxing’s extradition. He was accused of running a multi-billion dollar smuggling operation in Xiamen in the 90s.
As Branigan’s own article showed, the Chinese government has brought justice to many cases of corruption, including to influential and high ranking officials.
That leads to the second error in her article where she wrote:
The party is spinning the case as proof of its determination to keep cadres clean, with state media saying it shows that no one is above the rules and treating it as an isolated case. How many believe that is another matter. Corruption has long been a major public concern.
What ‘spinning?’ As Premier Wen stressed, the Chinese government is absolutely serious about fighting corruption. If foreign countries in fact are more cooperative with the Chinese government in extraditing fugitives, perhaps China’s situation would improve faster.
Rumor has it that Heywood wanted a bigger cut in helping Gu Kailai funnel money abroad. Their relationship soured, so the rumor goes, with Heywood threatening to expose Gu’s overseas investments. That supposedly led to the murder. (Curiously, Branigan’s article didn’t mention Heywood wanting a bigger cut.) Perhaps money funneled into the U.K. through corruption with assistance from Britons is a detail that can be overlooked?
So, there we have it. An otherwise seemingly well researched article about corruption must find a way to sneak in few jabs of defamation (see “Collective Defamation“).
[Update April 20, 2012 – Branigan’s response below via Twitter]
9:45 AM – 20 Apr 12 @hiddenharmonies no, not mistakes 1) report was stamped “internal data, store carefully” & was removed from website after ppl reported on it
9:46 AM – 20 Apr 12 @hiddenharmonies 2) spin does not mean something is false. it means it is being deliberately portrayed in certain light.
9:48 AM – 20 Apr 12 @hiddenharmonies have mentioned allegation re heywood elsewhere; did not here as piece abt corruption not abt intricacies of this case
I will have to admit that I didn’t know that People’s Bank Report was later taken down after the Chinese media reported on it. The AFP reported it as follows:
The report, which was prepared by the central bank’s anti-money laundering supervision and analysis centre, was initially stamped “for internal use only” but was posted on the People’s Bank of China website this week.
It was reported in some Chinese media but was no longer showing on the website Friday. AFP accessed it via a cached link.
With that, I would say, Branigan is technically correct to qualify the central bank report as having been published “apparently unintentionally.” In that context, I apologize for being harsh above.
However, the narration in her article is still problematic for the same reasons. Though Branigan is probably one of the much better Western journalists reporting on China, and so I want to remind readers to focus on this particular piece rather viewing this post as a condemnation on the journalist herself. The problem with the narration is as follows:
1. Uncritical Westerners will view the central banks report about corruption and money laundering being “apparently unintentionally” published as an attempt for the Chinese government to cover up and not sincere about the problem. Those predisposed to think the Chinese government ‘evil’ naturally interprets that narration as just that.(see “Collective Defamation“) Whereas, if you think critically, it may also means that the Chinese government is very sincere about this particular problem – hence the effort put in by the central bank looking at how funds are embezzled out of the country.
2. I don’t accept Branigan’s point above about ‘spin.’ Why would the Chinese government need to ‘spin’ to want to uphold rule of law and trying to keep the government clean? ‘Spin’ carries a negative connotation of distorting truth.
3. I don’t accept Branigan’s point about leaving out other details about Heywood either. If she brings in the rumor that Heywood threatened to expose Gu Kailai’s foreign investments as the reason for murder, then why not point out the other rumor that he wanted a bigger cut and that people like him are helping to expedite corruption in China? Perhaps unintentional, but my issue is with the article’s lack of balance.
Foreign countries like the U.S. and Canada play a HUGE role in how corruption escapes punishment for Chinese fugitives. See this excellent report:
The way they escape punishment is the fifth failing. Extradition involves the political and judicial systems of two countries, each with its own concept of law enforcement. The judicial procedure is often complicated and tedious. Extradition is very often obstructed by the fact that a person condemned to death in absentia cannot be extradited for human-rights reasons. In addition, China has not signed extradition treaties with the U.S. or Canada, the two most used destinations, so once the official has run away, the chance of catching him and putting him on trial is close to zero.
Even if they do get caught, the stolen funds are rarely recovered. This is the sixth failing. The U.N. Convention Against Corruption sets out the principle of returning illegal assets, but the procedure is difficult in practice. Not only does China have to show that it owns the assets, but it also has to share some of the money with the countries participating in the joint action. After deductions here and there, there isn’t much left.