Everyone's talking about the big NYT piece on the vast wealth of the family of China's Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. At one level this is utterly unsurprising. This is how the PRC's political economy works. Those people who stand at the intersection of state and market in the partially-reformed Chinese economy are in a position to make billions of dollars (and, yes, it is ultimately about dollars, a globally convertible currency, as this article suggests). And high level political leaders and their children and spouses and family members are very often the ones who push themselves into those positions. We see the same pattern with Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai. That's how they roll at the top of the PRC system.
The difference in the case of Wen Jiabao is that he has presented himself, and has been presented by the PRC media, as a man of modest means and tastes. He was famous for wearing the same plain overcoat for years on end. He styled himself a man of the people: "Grandpa Wen" comforted victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and personally apologized for the transportation havoc wreaked by the 2006 New Year's bilzzard. Earlier this year, he made a plaintive appeal for some sort of political reform.
In all of this there is a resonance with Mencius: the righteous leader, working to secure the people's basic livelihood while personally maintaining a frugal and simple lifestyle. Perhaps Wen somehow abosrbed Confucian-Mencian values somewhere along the way - though it is hard to know how a person who came up through the Party apparatus, beginning in the Cultrual Revolution, might have been able to practice Confucian benevolence. Or maybe the "Grandpa Wen" thing is bascially a political act. It's hard to know in the opaque world of Chinese politics.
But let's give Wen the benefit of the doubt. Let's say he has, at least in the post-Mao era, been trying to live a morally good life in something like Confucian terms. It is not an easy thing to do in contemporary China. He is embedded in a system driven by powerful material incentives. Money and corruption and power fuel the party-state machine. And those create behaviors and outcomes that contradict Confucian morality.
We should not, therefore, expect that Wen might have been able to transform the system in a Confucian-Mencian direction. But if he were to have moral effect anywhere, it might have been in his family life. Were he serious about setting an example of a moral ruler, he would have done so, first and foremost, in his relationships with his immediate family. And that is precisely where, based on these new revelations, he seems to have failed the Confucian test.
Any judgment here, however, relies upon assumptions about just what Wen knew and when (if you'll excuse the unavoidable pun) he knew it. The NYT story suggests he was generally in the dark about the fortunes being amassed by his mother and wife and son:
The prime minister’s supporters say he has not personally benefited from his extended family’s business dealings, and may not even be knowledgeable about the extent of them.
On the other hand, there are some hints that he was aware of what was going on:
While it is unclear how much the prime minister knows about his family’s wealth, State Department documents released by the WikiLeaks organization in 2010 included a cable that suggested Mr. Wen was aware of his relatives’ business dealings and unhappy about them.
“Wen is disgusted with his family’s activities, but is either unable or unwilling to curtail them,” a Chinese-born executive working at an American company in Shanghai told American diplomats, according to the 2007 cable.
I think he did know. You don't rise to the top of the PRC poltiical order wtihout being a very shrewd and sharp individual. He certainly was in a position to know if he wanted to know. If that is true, and he did know that his famly was using his public position to amass personal wealth (which he will ultimately benefit from), what could he have done? More than simply make public statements against corruption like this:
In the winter of 2007, just before he began his second term as prime minister, Wen Jiabao called for new measures to fight corruption, particularly among high-ranking officials.
“Leaders at all levels of government should take the lead in the antigraft drive,” he told a gathering of high-level party members in Beijing. “They should strictly ensure that their family members, friends and close subordinates do not abuse government influence.”
The speech was consistent with the prime minister’s earlier drive to toughen disclosure rules for public servants, and to require senior officials to reveal their family assets.
Whether Mr. Wen has made such disclosures for his own family is unclear, since the Communist Party does not release such information. Even so, many of the holdings found by The Times would not need to be disclosed under the rules since they are not held in the name of the prime minister’s immediate family — his wife, son and daughter.
These are just words. And we know that, from a Confucian perspective words alone are not enough. If words do not match actions - in this case the continuation of family wealth-making off of Wen's position - then more meaningful action should be taken. A person trying to fulfill Confucian morality would be willing to resign from the postion that is the root cause of the corrupt behavior. In Mencius, Shun, the exemplary sage-ruler, faces a situation where his family obligations conflict with his official duties and:
Shun would have regarded abandoning the realm as he would abandoning an old shoe. (7A.35: Bloom).
Maintaining the moral fiber of the family comes first. In the example of Shun, the moral problem is more dire: his father has committed murder. But the principle extends to other circumstances as well, especially if the office itself is the source of immoral family behavior.
Wen Jiabao, if he were truly a Mencian exemplarly ruler, should have resgned to stop the corruption he could affect. He didn't. And in that, he has not lived up to the standards of Confucian morality.