In the Philippines, being rich means you can run for election

In the Philippines, being rich means you can run for election

The reception hall with its famed Czechoslovak chandeliers at Malacañang Palace—home to the most powerful man in the country. (Photo: Tatler)

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.

— The late former US Supreme Court associate justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis

I READ an article written by British journalist Gideon Rachman that said that in China, the rich, famous, and powerful are all vulnerable to disgrace, disappearance, or worse.

This phenomenon was highlighted by the headline of an article in Forbes magazine in 2011 entitled ‘Friends don’t let friends become Chinese billionaires’. It cited statistics from the Chinese press, pointing out that 72 of China’s billionaires had died premature deaths in the past eight years.

And what about here in the Philippines? From what I know, rich men here can become elected officials in government and at most times because their purpose in seeking public posts is to protect their business interest or otherwise promote their wealth.

But going back to Rachman’s article, he narrated the rise and fall of well-known television anchor Rui Chenggang who was arrested for alleged corruption and from what I hear, was never seen again.

Before this, the Britisher described how the young Chinese television personality, whose tailoring was as impeccable as his English, made a strong impression on him when they met with then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in a press conference in Davos in 2014. Rui had asked Mr. Abe a tough question—while also pointing out that, when in Tokyo, he used the same gym as Abe.

In short, Rachman, was picturing Rui as showing to be very pleased with himself when they had met. And after the press conference, Rui told the Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator to look him up the next time he was in Beijing. Rachman never got the chance because Rui was later arrested that summer and has not been seen in public again.

The story of Rui Chenggang serves as a personal reminder of how quickly the rich and powerful can fall from grace in China. The most famous current example is the tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared for several weeks after making an accusation of sexual assault against a senior Chinese leader, before reappearing in a series of staged photo and video appearances. Her future remains uncertain.

Citing statistics from the Chinese press, Rachman’s article provided details about the plight of China’s billionaires: “Among the 72 billionaires, 15 were murdered, 17 committed suicide, seven died from accidents, 14 were executed according to the law and 19 died from diseases.”

And in Chinese tycoon Desmond Shum’s recently published book, Red Roulette, it is said that Shum and his wife, Whitney Duan, rose from poverty to become billionaire property developers. They drove a Rolls-Royce around Beijing and traveled the world in private jets. The couple thought nothing of spending US$100,000 on wine at a single meal in Paris.

Shum’s wife thrived on her connections to China’s political elite—until she was arrested in 2017 and disappeared. As Red Roulette makes clear, this kind of sudden fall from grace is not uncommon. Shum and Duan’s redevelopment of Beijing airport hit a problem when one of their key contacts, Li Peiying, who was the airport’s general manager, disappeared without explanation. He was later charged with corruption and executed.

Duan also cultivated as a key political contact Sun Zhengcai, a fast-rising official tipped as a potential successor to President Xi Jinping. However, Sun was later expelled from the Communist Party and sentenced to life in prison for corruption in 2018. But Shum argues that Sun’s fall actually resulted from becoming a victim of a “political hit job” and Duan’s connections to him may, in turn, have led to her arrest. Or it could also be said that Whitney became too close to the wife of former premier Wen Jiabao, whose family had become fabulously wealthy.

Despite once being the second most powerful man in China, Wen is now reduced to communicating in code. A memoir about his mother that he published in an obscure newspaper this year was read as a veiled criticism of Xi and was swiftly scrubbed from the internet.

And going back to Peng Shuai, some believe that the celebrated tennis player may also be communicating in code. One of the photos released to prove that she is still alive showed her standing next to a photo of Winnie the Pooh, which some say represents Xi, who is often derisively compared with the portly bear.

Thus we see that in China, international renown offers no protection from arbitrary power.

And in October 2020, Alibaba founder and China’s most famous businessman Jack Ma dared to criticize Chinese regulators, so since then, he has barely been seen in public. Another is Meng Hongwei, who became the first-ever Chinese president of Interpol. Meng was arrested on a trip home in 2018, charged with corruption, and sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.

In the nature of the Chinese system, it means that steering clear of politics is no protection. Yet in the Philippines, it means embracing politics as a way to enrich one’s self and his family. Same as in China, business here is opaque and runs on connections, so everyone is operating under the influence of sponsorship through connections to powerful individuals. (ai/mtvn)

Leave a Reply