Here’s looking at you, Beijing

The story of Chongqing's former party chief, Bo Xilai, has become the emblematic case of corruption spiralling out of control. Other cases of corruption among local officials, some of them leading to mass protests, have occurred elsewhere, the most important being in Wukan, Guangdong.

Central to the corruption phenomenon is the practice of utilising one's own position in the system for financial gains. The magnitude of the wealth made by the elite is always assumed to be scarily high, with the numbers discussed running to tens of millions of renminbi. Displays of wealth, such as possession of sports cars, socialising in upscale restaurants, wearing luxurious clothes and jewelry, are almost universally associated with corruption. And such displays are not rare in China anymore.

In the months prior to the Congress, rumours of "hidden riches" concerned the very top of the CPC leadership, as two respectable American media outlets came out with detailed reports on the fortunes made by the families of two of the most authoritative figures in Chinese politics. The rumours did not discuss the legality, but rather implicitly questioned the ethics of the fusion of political and financial power and tackled the lack of transparency at the top.

In June, Bloomberg published an article on the fortune made by Xi Jinping's relatives, which allegedly exceeds hundreds of millions of American dollars. The response from Beijing has been a complete dismissal of the issue and cutting online access to Bloomberg.

However, it was another scandal that had a stronger impact. In late October, The New York Times published a story on the wealth of the family of incumbent Premier Wen Jiabao, estimated to exceed $2.7 billion. Wen is one of the most dedicated and loudest pro-reform, anti-corruption voices among the seniors in the party. He has pushed for increased transparency and accountability when it comes to financial gains, and has been vocal on curbing officials' abuse of power. Earlier this year, during the National People's Congress, Wen discussed the Chongqing case, using it as a pretext to warn of potential relapse into another historical episode of misrule, or even another Cultural Revolution, if the party does not manage to get its act together and advance political reform. Now, it is Wen who is providing grist to the rumour mill.

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