The extreme wealth of China’s political elites has lately been a hot topic in the western media. The Bo Xilai scandal dribbled blood into the mental waters of writers from The Daily Beast to the New York Times, and a raging feeding frenzy is now under way. The conclusion of all of the coverage is the same:
China’s leaders are filthy rich; they get this way by using political influence to make their money; corruption is endemic.
The reporting leading to these conclusions has been great fun to read. Bloomberg News recently offered a complex, illuminating piece on the ways Xi Jinping—future supreme leader of China—amassed his wealth. Others have been following the ways China’s elites are funneling their kids (the so-called Princelings) into Harvard. On the more scintillating end, rumors have surfaced that Bo Xilai paid actress Zhang Ziyi a million dollars a pop to have sex with her.
But while the facts (and rumors) are available, the conclusions we in the West are drawing are unfair. It is a fact that Chinese leaders are rich. It is fact that they use their power to maintain their wealth and dominance, that they strive to pass power on to their children, and that all of this can be viewed as skewed and corrupt.
Yet those who conclude that this makes China unique, special, or destined for a political reckoning are wrong. China is, in fact, simply following the American model of political stability. America’s political elite are, of course, also filthy rich—and perhaps even filthier. See here for a look at the long reign of millionaire presidents, or do a google search to find out if your Senator or Congressman is in the top 1/10th of 1% of overall income (more than 50% of Congress is in this uber-elite, millionaires club).
Americans are fine with rich people running the country, and a Supreme Court entirely stacked with Harvard and Yale graduates. We seem unconsciously to yearn for it (as some noted after Republicans elevated their least favorite but richest candidate for President). We know our elections are tied to money (if you outspend your opponent in America, you win somewhere between 75-90% of the time). And here in New York, we are ruled by the richest man in the city, a man who changed the rules to extend his regime into a second decade.
We should not harbor illusions about China. It is largely run by the rich, for the rich. Perhaps that’s why it feels, to me, so much like home.