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China’s Political Elite Take the Money and Run – Abroad

What’s driving the stealthy exodus of China’s power elite?

What's driving the stealthy exodus of China's power elite? (Photo: Shatin Square via Shutterstock)

The Chinese government is keen to speak with a man named Ling Wancheng who’s hiding out somewhere in the United States under an assumed name – and not without good reason. Mr. Ling is the brother of Ling Jihua, a former high-ranking apparatchik of the Chinese government who was recently expelled from the Communist Party after being investigated for taking bribes and obtaining state secrets. The latter charge is particularly interesting because it suggests why Ling Wancheng is keeping a low profile. But it’s not the only reason.

During the past few years, members of China’s economically privileged elite have been buying up luxury real estate in places like Manhattan and London under the pretext of financial investment. The case of Ling Wancheng helps to highlight other factors driving the stealthy exodus of China’s power elite.

Meet the Lings

For roughly five years, starting back in 2007, Ling Jihua was the director of the Communist Party’s General Office, a pivotal role that entails close links to party leadership. For example, the director of the General Office maintains both the schedules and security details for the Central Committee, which comprises the top leadership of the Communist Party. Whoever does this has been endowed with a substantial amount of trust. Directing the General Office also tends to be a steppingstone that leads to higher office. Initially, Ling Jihua’s prospects were encouraging, as he demonstrated a history of associating with the right people. In particular, he ascended to the General Office after serving as a close adviser to former President Hu Jintao.

The unspoken, long-term plan for most Chinese elites is to accumulate as much money as they can and then escape the country.

Five years later, Ling Jihua’s career took a turn when his 23-year-old son Ling Gu died in a car crash. Two women, in various states of undress, were also seriously injured, and the Ferrari driven by Ling Gu was likewise totaled. Inequality is a serious issue in China and nothing, dear reader, spells princeling like a Ferrari. Gu’s father attempted to cover up the incident, an effort that failed miserably and led to a high-profile demotion in 2012. That was the beginning of the end for Ling Jihua. He was subsequently investigated on various charges in 2014 and then arrested this past July.

Ling Jihua likely realized that his days were numbered as support within the Communist Party visibly waned. So it’s not surprising that his brother, Ling Wancheng (also known as Jason Wang or Wang Cheng), bought a 7,800-square-foot McMansion for $2.5 million in Loomis, Nevada, in the aftermath of the botched vehicular cover-up. Note that a company, using the exact same address that Jason Wang listed to buy the luxury property in Loomis, also purchased a couple of golf courses in Nevada.

The Department of Homeland Security has been pretty tight-lipped about Ling Wancheng’s whereabouts and his status as an asylum seeker, implying that he may possess information of interest to US security services. During its heyday, the Ling family circulated freely among the upper echelons of power in China, and Ling Wancheng may have what The New York Times referred to as “embarrassing information.”

Life as a Chinese Oligarch

The rise and fall of the Ling family highlights why members like Ling Wancheng seek out refuge in the United States. The daily existence of the average Chinese lawmaker is like something out of Lord of the Flies. The longer those with power stay in China, the higher the risk that they’ll get their turn, as with William Golding’s “Piggy” character. In the sanctum of China’s elite, protection over the short term is acquired by aligning with one of the Communist Party’s reigning internal factions. That’s where the seat of power resides. Yet political tides shift. Officials who were once safely on the inside, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former general Xu Caihou, are pushed out into the cold and become fair game for those who currently occupy the helm.

The staggering corruption in China mirrors similar maladies in the United States.

Such is the unpleasant truth of politics in China. Over a long enough time span, the likelihood of survival for leaders is inclined to diminish. In a system defined by widespread corruption, rule of law is largely a myth. For example, Bo Xilai, another casualty of President Xi Jinping’s purge, showed absolutely no compunction about illegally spying on his rivals. At the top, it’s everyone for themselves, with the devil taking the hindmost. Being prosecuted only means that those targeted don’t possess the organizational clout necessary to stymie an investigation.

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is a graphic case study. What might first come across as a noble battle against corruption is more than likely an attempt to consolidate control and eliminate rivals.

Hence the unspoken, long-term plan for most Chinese elites is to accumulate as much money as they can and then escape the country before they end up being a bull’s-eye. In a manner similar to Ling Wancheng, many of the elite preemptively migrate wealth and family members abroad to prepare for their own exfiltration.

Oligarchs All Over

The regions where China’s wealthy purchase real estate indicate the destinations that they view as relatively more stable environments. The United States is a popular end point, and this might be of some condolence to Americans. Sadly, the staggering corruption in China mirrors similar maladies in the United States. While the citizens of Hong Kong might complain that they have little control over who governs them, look closely and you’ll observe the same type of problem here in the United States.

In these parts, we call it a “shadow primary.” It’s not a battle of ideas; it’s an unalloyed battle of resources as candidates on both sides of the aisle line up to audition for different factions of donors. The billions of dollars that get thrown around dwarf amounts spent in other countries. The corporate media, which receive the bulk of this money, play along and focus attention on those candidates who’ve been sanctioned by the donors. And don’t expect the Federal Election Commission to do anything about it; the committee’s leadership has already explicitly admitted that it’s hamstrung. It’s called state capture, and Adam Smith’s “masters of mankind” are calling the shots.

Former President Jimmy Carter spells it out:

Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and Congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.

Just remember that change is inevitable. The United States may, at some point in the future, prove less inviting to the privileged few. As the climate changes, food prices rise, fossil fuels dwindle, inequality soars and the self-perpetuating global war on terror continues to wear away at our societal fabric, it’s only natural that severe political turbulence will follow. So when US elites begin to acquire real estate abroad, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, it’s probably a sign that they’ve taken a dim view of the country’s enduring viability.

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