Cherchez la Femme – China Style

It was the most dramatic illustration of how mistresses have become a key part of China’s corruption story. On Sept. 3, according to the Beijing Times, of the 16 ministry-level officials sacked recently for corruption, 14 had mistresses, including Shanghai Communist Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, who had several, as did former Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Zhihua.

It was an operation worthy of Mossad or an Al-Qaeda operative in central Baghad – a car bomb detonated by remote control on a crowded street that blew the driver into two and scattered her remains over a wide area. But the difference is that the assassin was one of the most senior Communist Party officials in the eastern city of Jinan, in league with two accomplices, one of them a middle-ranking police officer who used police explosives.

Duan Yihe, 61, former Communist Party secretary in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, pleaded guilty in court last week to the murder of Liu Haiping, 31, his mistress. His two accomplices also pleaded guilty. Duan also pleaded guilty to taking bribes and was he unable to explain the source of 1.3 million yuan in assets, far in excess of his official income. The court Thursday sentenced him to death along with his two accomplices. The three men have appealed the sentence.

The money, it seems was for the late mistress, who had taken to blackmailing her lover. Duan needed to get rid of her.

It was the most dramatic illustration of how mistresses have become a part of China’s corruption story. It is so serious that, on July 8, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procurate issued a legal ruling that includes mistresses for the first time in the definition of “those having a special relationship with an official.” Previously, the law spoke of “those having common interests with an official,” but did not mention mistresses as a category. By this change, the court made it easier for prosecutors to charge corrupt officials if they find misdeeds that involve one’s “little” wife.

The ruling includes the term “a person having a special relationship with an official” and defines this as a close relative, a mistress or others. The inclusion of mistresses is necessary because they frequently demand money, cars, apartments and other gifts from their lovers. When he cannot pay out of his official salary, he has to look elsewhere.

For example, Li Jiating, the governor of Yunnan province until his dismissal in June 2001, paid his mistress, who had just four years of schooling, three million yuan to pay off debts she had run up.

Mistresses also often play a role in helping the official obtain illegal income and launder the money.

The Duan case is typical, even if the outcome was extraordinary. In 1994 he met Liu, a primary school graduate, when she was a waitress at an official guest house. He took a liking to her and made her his lover. She used the money she gave him to buy two cars and four apartments, one in a high-class district of Jinan, purchased in the name of her mother.

Duan also arranged a job for her in a Communist Party office bureau of the city government. However, as such things do, the relationship faded and Duan went looking for fresher talent. The official later took on new mistresses and the two fell out, but beware the woman scorned. Liu found documents linking him to illegal income and blackmailed him. Duan contacted his nephew, a police officer, and the head of a local auto repair shop and asked them to arrange a traffic accident.

The two placed explosives from a police arsenal in Liu’s car and detonated it as she drove by on a busy road in Jinan on July 9, the court was told. Two bystanders were injured.

When officials of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing learned that police explosives had been used, they became alarmed and sent a special team to investigate. Officers found Duan’s number on the dead woman’s mobile phone, which led them to investigate him.

The ruling by the Supreme People’s Court putting mistresses into the law provoked widespread debate, with some lawyers arguing that it was difficult to define a mistress and that this would cause problems for judges in handling such cases.

Wang Zhenchuan, deputy chief prosecutor, acknowledged to the magazine Caijing in its current issue that there was no strict legal definition for a mistress. “Is it a woman you have feelings for? Is it a woman you sleep with? No, it is not clear. But they are extremely common and very many officials become corrupt because of them.

“So we decided for this reason to include them explicitly in the law, which is very significant,” he told the magazine. Experience, he said, had taught him that corrupt officials often had closer relationships with their mistresses than with members of their own family, even though they had no legal relationship as husband and wife.

“In some cases, they stole millions, even tens of millions of yuan for their mistresses, which shows how widespread and serious the phenomenon is,” Wang said.

In an editorial, the magazine, one of the most influential in China, said the phenomenon of mistresses is eroding the image of officials, of domestic politics, the economy and social morality.

The public assumes that, like emperors and rich men in pre-communist China, officials take mistresses as a perk of the job and, the higher up they are, the prettier the woman will be and the more numerous. Chairman Mao, for example, had dozens of mistresses.

Jiang Zemin, who headed the party from 1989 until 2002, is widely believed to have two, his favourite a beautiful and famous soprano named Song Zuying, who sang as China’s representative at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea.

Many anecdotes circulate about their relationship, the most famous relating to the night of September 11, 2001, when President George Bush is said to have called Jiang, among other world leaders, in a desperate effort to find out who planned the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

In the dark bedroom, Jiang is said to have fumbled to pick up the telephone as Song shouted: “Ben, ladeng (idiot, switch on the light).”. And that is how Bush, overhearing this, learned who was the mastermind behind the attacks.