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Chinese rights activists have called for greater transparency in the handling of an investigation into ousted former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, amid reports that he tapped the phone of Chinese President Hu Jintao. The New York Times on Thursday quoted almost a dozen sources with ties to China's ruling Communist Party, now facing its biggest political crisis since 1989, as saying that Bo's obssessive wiretapping of Party colleagues, including Hu, was seen as evidence of Bo's overweening ambition, and hastened his political downfall.
The report said that anti-surveillance devices installed in the President's office had detected the wiretap during a call made by a senior anti-corruption official in Chongqing last August, during Bo's tenure there. Central government investigators initially began a probe into Bo's then-police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, possibly contributing to Wang's flight this year to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, where he alleged that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was linked to the death of British business consultant Neil Heywood last November.
The secrecy surrounding Bo's disgrace has set China's Internet alight with political rumors, which the authorities have moved swiftly to quell through controls on the country's wildly popular Twitter-like services, known as "weibo." It has also sparked calls from lawyers and rights activists for greater transparency around the Bo-linked investigations ahead of a key leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
Eyes on China
Beijing-based rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said the eyes of the world were on China as the Bo scandal unfolded, and called on the authorities to make the investigation as public as possible. "An internal investigation is already a denial of the rule of law," Jiang said. "We citizens have no way of knowing whether this case is about politics, a factional struggle ... unless it is handled with transparency," he said. "People have already been punished who should not have been," Jiang added. He said he had called for Bo to be subjected to due legal process and given a fair trial on his Sina Weibo microblog account. "It doesn't matter what Bo Xilai has done," Jiang said. "His rights should still be protected."
Bo, once seen as a contender for China's all-powerful nine-member Politburo standing committee, was stripped of his seats on the Politburo and the Party's Central Committee earlier this month. Gu, formerly a successful lawyer with international business interests, is now under police investigation as a suspect in Heywood's murder, while Bo and Wang are under internal investigation at unknown locations for "serious violations" of Party discipline, official media has reported.
'No lavish lifestyle'
Meanwhile, Bo's Harvard-based son broke his silence this week in a letter to the student newsletter, Crimson, denying reports that he had lived a life of decadent luxury while a student in the U.K. "I am deeply concerned about the events surrounding my family, but I have no comments to make regarding the ongoing investigation," Bo wrote in a letter published in the online edition of the newsletter. He denied reports that he had lived a lavish lifestyle while he was a student in the U.K. "My tuition and living expenses at Harrow School, University of Oxford and Harvard University were funded exclusively by two sources—scholarships earned independently, and my mother’s generosity from the savings she earned from her years as a successful lawyer and writer," Bo wrote.
In an apparent reference to photographs which have appeared in British tabloids of him at parties and engaged in student pranks, Bo admitted to going to some social events during his time at Oxford. "These events are a regular feature of social life at Oxford and most students take part in these college-wide activities," he wrote.
Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, said he was still skeptical about Bo Guagua's lifestyle. "Bo Xilai said [at a news conference in March] that his wife, Gu Kailai, had closed her law business a long time ago and didn't have a job," Hu said. "What most people were concerned about was how the two of them could afford to pay the fees for these schools on his salary as a government official," he said. "The apartment Bo Guagua lives in at Harvard is of the type that costs U.S. $3,000 a month; he is clearly not going to be able to afford to pay that out of a scholarship." Hu called on the investigation to make public the details of Bo and Gu's income. "[We want to know] whether the money Gu Kailai saved from her law practice was enough to to support that kind of expenditure."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin declined to comment on the letter. "I am very sorry, but we haven't received any material on this matter," Liu told a regular news conference in Beijing on Wednesday. "This affair has already entered a judicial process, and will be dealt with by judicial departments according to law," Liu said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Wukan Former Officials 'Should Stand Trial' (RFA 4/26/12)
Residents of the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan are outraged by what they consider to be extremely light sentences imposed on former village officials from the ruling Chinese Communist Party for corruption, saying public trust was at stake. The residents drew international attention last year when they drove out their officials over illegal land grabs and elected a fresh team to administer the village amid a standoff with thousands of armed police.
Former Wukan Party secretary Xue Chang and former village committee chairman Chen Shunyi were expelled from the Party and ordered to hand over illegal gains of 189,200 yuan (U.S.$30,031) and 86,000 yuan respectively, the official Xinhua news agency quoted provincial-level officials as saying Thursday.
According to Zeng Qingrong, deputy head of the supervision department of Guangdong province, a number of former Wukan officials were found to have been involved in illegally transferring land use rights, embezzling collective properties, accepting bribes, and rigging village elections, Xinhua said. Six other former village officials also received Party disciplinary action, the agency said, without elaborating.
Out of a total of 12 township and municipal officials who collaborated with the Wukan officials in discipline violations, two were handed over to "judicial authorities," it said, adding that more than 1.06 million yuan (U.S. $168,000) of illegal gains had been confiscated from the officials.
Punishments 'just for show'
But Wukan villagers said the punishments were too light, because the officials had disposed of almost all collectively owned village farmland during their 40-year stranglehold on power.
"Saying that they embezzled just a few hundred thousand is not likely to win people's trust [in the process]," said Wukan village committee member Zhuang Liehong, who took office after the March election. "That hardly counts as corruption at all ... over a period of decades. They sold of several thousand mu (hundreds of hectares) of land," Zhuang said.
Zhuang said a recent probe carried out by Guandong provincial officials had turned up cases of land grabs, bribery, luxury cars for private use, and election-rigging among former members of the Wukan village committee and in the land and communications bureaus of nearby Donghai township and Lufeng city. He said many Wukan residents were angered by the recent announcements, saying the punishments meted out to the officials concerned were "too light." "They have already found out that certain township-level officials illegally bought social insurance policies for Xue Chang and eight other officials," Zhuang said. "Now, they have just been kicked out of the Party and given a warning," he said. "The punishment is far too light." "We have lost land that is worth ... billions of yuan at least," Zhuang said. "They have only given back 400,000 yuan to the village."
An Wukan resident who declined to be identified said he doubted that the provincial government was sincere in solving Wukan's problems. "They only fined them a small amount; this is just for show," he said. "It's all fake."
A second elected Wukan committee member, Zhang Jiancheng, said villagers wanted the officials to face criminal charges for their actions, which prompted months of well-organized demonstrations and mass, peaceful protests outside government offices in Lufeng and Donghai, prompting the authorities to send in the security forces. "It's the provincial government's responsibility to pursue them for this," Zhang said. "They should have to face criminal responsibility and sentencing for taking bribes." "Otherwise, the people will be very angry."
Zhang said there was already growing dissatisfaction on the part of Wukan villagers with Zeng, who had still declined to give specific details regarding the return of village land. "I heard some villagers saying that they are adamant that all of the lost land must be returned," he said. "Others are saying that they are going to protest outside the provincial government headquarters because they are unhappy with the provincial government working group's responses."
However, Wukan was quiet this week, with most villagers waiting to see if promises from deputy provincial Party secretary Zhu Mingguo to return a portion of land to the village by May 1 would be kept. Hubei-based grass-roots election expert and former independent People's Congress deputy Yao Lifa said the fact that Wukan had been allowed to hold direct elections didn't mean that its problems were over. "We can't take the simplistic view that there will now be political reforms in Guangdong province just because there have been these recent developments in Wukan," Yao said. "That would be too optimistic [because] the overall direction that Guangdong is going in isn't driven by popular opinion."
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to rural communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced the state-run farms and communes of the Mao era. Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by An Pei for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.