China’s Game of Thrones

Four Chinese leaders who show just how corrupt the system has become. 

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese leaders enjoy a level of privacy unheard of in the West; the often vast business and political dealings of their families are shrouded in mystery by design. Only when Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai fell from grace in March did he expose himself to scrutiny from the outside world, illuminating the web of connections that bound him and his family to global business and political interests.

Since Bo’s downfall, Chinese officials and intellectuals have taken the rare step of speaking specifically about his case, allowing Western journalists to uncover details about the Bo family and providing what is likely the clearest picture of cronyism among princelings, the sons and daughters of those who have held high-ranking posts in the Chinese leadership.

Bo’s brother Bo Xiyong resigned in April after reports that, going by the name Li Xueming, he made millions as a director of the alternative energy company China Everbright International. (Bo’s surname is rare in China; Li is very common). His wife Gu Kailai, herself the daughter of a PLA general, stands accused of the murder of British businessmen Neil Heywood after he threatened to expose her for planning to transfer money overseas illegally. Bloomberg reported that Bo’s relatives are worth at least $136 million.

In recent years, only the Bo clan has had its affairs ingloriously paraded in front of the international media — the  business ties of top leaders like President Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping remain mostly unknown. But here are four senior Chinese leaders whose web of connections have already been probed, and whose full exposure would most increase the outside world’s understanding of how the system works.


The high-ranking official most compromised by the Bo scandal may be Zhou Yongkang. Officially ranked ninth on the Politburo Standing Committee, the top governmental body in China, until this year Zhou not only controlled China’s vast domestic security apparatus including its cops, special police, and judges through his official position, but also had special connections from working in the oil sector for 40 years, which gave him a considerable amount of influence into China’s energy policy, especially in places like Iran and Sudan. He also ran the office that cracks down on the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and coordinated policy on Xinjiang, China’s restive Muslim region in the far northwest.  “Even someone like Hu Jintao, who nominally controls the military, has to give Zhou Yongkang considerable respect,” says an academic who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Some China experts think that in 2011, Zhou was the third most powerful person in the Chinese government.

But now Zhou, who has been described as “a man who brightens any room by leaving it” might have a much weaker grip on power. In the February meeting of the National People’s Congress, eight days before Bo was removed from his post as Chongqing party secretary, Zhou was reportedly the only Standing Committee member who disagreed with the decision to investigate and remove Bo. Since then, rumors have flown that Zhou helped plot a coup with Bo, and the Financial Times reported that Zhou has given up all of his security roles.

How severely has Zhou been affected by Bo’s downfall? There have been no clear official signs that Zhou’s power is on the wane; at 69 years old, he is set to step down at the next People’s Congress, planned for this autumn. As the head of internal security, the management of people like Chen Guangcheng falls under Zhou’s remit; did Chen’s dramatic escape in April weaken Zhou or was it a sign of Zhou’s weakness? If Zhou leaves the Standing Committee before the fall, China’s political crisis will have been far more deep and dangerous than we knew.


Wen Jiabao has been China’s premier since 2002, and is a well-liked and sympathetic figure among Chinese liberals. In major appearances, Wen has called loudly for political reform: in his press conference before the sacking of Bo Xilai he even used the word “reform” 70 times.  “It’s his final days, and I think he’s generally playing to history and future generations,” says a former high-ranking U.S. official, who met him while serving in the Obama administration. “He has done this often enough, and in language different from others, so that I believe [he’s sincere about reform].” Wen, the only member of the Standing Committee to have granted interviews to Western media, has also seemed to benefit the most among the current leadership from the purge of Bo.

But Wen’s reformist credentials are likely weakened by the business interests of his family. His son Winston formerly ran a private equity firm called First Horizon Capital; he now runs a state-owned satellite company. Wen’s wife is thought to be deeply involved in the gem business. Rumors swirled a few years ago in Beijing that the supposed corruption of Wen’s family would bring him down; the question now seems to be whether there is any consensus in the Standing Committee for instituting Wen’s political reforms.


Cronyism is not the only way family members can hurt one’s cause. In the 1980s, Yu was a promising young official, with a deep red background: His father Huang Jing was the first-ever Communist party secretary of Tianjin (and also an early husband of Jiang Qing, who went on to become Madame Mao); his father in law was reportedly a former PLA general. But in 1985 Yu’s brother, formerly the director of the Beijing National Security Bureau, defected to the United States. The defection not only brought down a Chinese spy in the CIA, but also nearly torpedoed Yu’s career. He spent the next dozen years working his way up through relatively low-level positions in the coastal province of Shandong.

Now some analysts are predicting that Yu, the party secretary of Shanghai, might receive a seat on the Standing Committee this fall ; his brother’s whereabouts remain unknown.


Li Peng was China’s premier from 1987 to 1998. Known as “the Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Li’s name returns to the public eye whenever calls for re-assessing the 1989 massacre re-emerge. (What actually happened at the top level remains in dispute, though Li is widely thought to have been one of the leading voices advocating that troops open fire on Tiananmen Square.)

Li, currently the vice-governor of Shanxi, is not officially a princeling, but he is the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, China’s premier under Mao, a connection that helped him climb the ranks. Li managed the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, and two of his children inherited his love for power — the electric kind. His daughter Li Xiaolin is the CEO of China Power International Development, which had revenues of $2.2 billion in 2010, and his son, currently vice-governor of Shanxi, one of China’s major coal producing provinces, was formerly CEO of China Huaneng Group, one of the largest Chinese power generators.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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