By: Our Correspondent


When Jia Qinglin arrived in Beijing in 1997 to become the city’s mayor, he was summoned to the office of Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, the man soon to be appointed prime minister.

”You have two choices,” said Zhu. “You can divorce your wife or you can resign. Which will it be?”

Enraged, Jia refused to do either and stormed out of the room. He called his friend of 35 years, Jiang Zemin, then president and Communist Party chief, and demanded his help. Jiang telephoned Zhu and told him to back off and let Jia up take up his post.

Nine years on, Zhu and Jiang have retired and Jia, 66, ranks fourth on the nine-member standing committee of the party’s ruling Politburo. But the accusations leveled against him in 1997 still hang over his head and are likely to bring him down as reigning party chief Hu Jintao continues his purge of Jiang’s allies, many known informally as the Shanghai gang.

The most recent to fall was Chen Liangyu, the former Shanghai Communist Party boss, who was arrested on corruption charges in October. When Hu came to power, he was regarded as little more than a colorless party apparatchik and was contemptuously nicknamed “the grandson” because of his prior obedience to his elders in making the long climb up the ladder of power. But Hu’s three-year reign has seen him tighten his grip, driving the Shanghai gang from power and jailing a growing number of them.
 
It remains to be seen when Jia will fall but his time is near. Both he and his wife are tarnished by their connection to a vast smuggling operation in the southern Fujian city of Xiamen – broken up in 1999. That is all Hu need to bring him down. From 1985 to 1997, Jia held a number of senior positions, including party chief and governor, in Fujian at the time of the biggest smuggling scandal in post-1949 China. Presided over by the notorious smuggling lord Lai Changxing, some US$10 billion worth of illegal imports, from steel and crude oil to cars and cigarettes, came through the operation, it is believed.

Courts ultimately sentenced 500 people, with 14 death sentences and 12 life terms, including the vice mayor of Xiamen and the head of the city’s customs department. But in August 1999, Lai was tipped off on his mobile phone while on a flight from Hong Kong to Xiamen by his top police informant that he was about to be arrested. He took the next plane to Manila and then Vancouver. He lives there now and is fighting a protracted legal battle against extradition to China.

When police searched Lai’s office in Xiamen, they found a photograph of him with Jia. Lai also knew Jia’s wife, Lin Youfeng, who was general manager of the Fujian Foreign Trade Centre Corporation, and helped her in several business deals.   

Lai is alleged to have paid Jia at least 10 million yuan in bribes, according to the Chinese-language press in Hong Kong. In an interview with Yazhou Zhoukan (Asiaweek) in November, Lai denied giving Jia money directly.

“I had dealings with top officials, including Jia. I met him often. I did not give him money directly, but it was normal to give presents and of course you had to give high-quality items,” he told the magazine.

Asked about Jia’s wife, Lai said that she was very active in business in Fujian and knew many entrepreneurs and that he helped her greatly, including securing for her and a partner a prime piece of land in Xiamen.

 “At that time, she thanked me a lot,.” Lai told Yazhou Zhoukan. He said he met Jia through Jia’s driver, Ding Jintiao, who sold access to his boss for money and rose to become deputy party chief of Quanzhou in Fujian and then head of the Quanzhou government office in Beijing.

In the interview, Lai said a publisher had offered him US$880,000 for his autobiography, but that the moment had not come to publish it. He wants to reveal its contents first to officials from the Communist Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Committee (CDIC), which is responsible for fighting corruption within the party.

In 1997, Jia’s wife appeared on Phoenix, a mainland-backed television channel based in Hong Kong with an audience of tens of millions in the mainland. Sitting in a sofa at home, she told the interviewer she was enjoying a happy married life with her husband in Beijing, after moving there from Fujian.

The news item, without context and inexplicable to most viewers, was aimed at the small number of people in the Party nomenclature who knew of Jia’s showdown with Zhu and believed that he may have divorced her to save his job.

But Hu does not have to bother sending investigators to Vancouver to see Lai. The files of the CDIC already contain all the information he needs after the exhaustive investigation conducted when Zhu was Premier in preparation for the trials of the 500 individuals already sentenced.

In addition, Hu has set up a team of some 300 officials who are investigating various illegal and corrupt property deals in Beijing, where Jia was mayor between 1997 and 1999.

Along with Shanghai, the capital’s property market has been the most active and profitable over the last 10 years. On December 12, the CDIC announced the expulsion from the party of Li Zhihua, who was sacked in June as vice-mayor of Beijing and will be charged with taking millions  of yuan in property-related bribes.

If need be, Jia also can be attacked for his private life – he has a  mistress, an officer in the navy, who has a son by him. The two live in Xiamen.

In 1997, it was his friendship with Jiang that saved Jia. The two men have known each other since the 1960s, when they both worked in the Machine-Building Industry Ministry. Jia introduced Jiang to his wife and served as best man at his wedding. Jiang summoned Jia to Beijing to serve as its party chief after he dismissed and arrested the incumbent, Chen Xitong, and needed a loyal confidant to control the city.

But Jiang is no longer able to protect his friend. Hu wants his own men in the Politburo’s standing committee and of the nine, only two Jiang loyalists remain – Jia and Huang Ju, who has advanced cancer and will retire soon for health reasons.

Jia may as well pack his bags.