The Himalayan Heist
Column by M.J.Akbar - Why do intelligent people commit murder? Hatred, envy, greed may be familiar primal motives, but desire remains many phases away from deed unless you are an idiot, or deranged. Murderers are not suicidal, or they would end their problems with a different form of death. Clever people kill is because they think they can get away with murder. The dream of a perfect murder thrives in life and fiction. A ruling class has a complacent variation: since it controls the system, it imagines it is beyond accountability.
We may never know which tipping point drove the rising stars of Chinese politics, Bo Xilai, politburo member and supreme commissar of Chongqing, and his wife Gu Kailai, to murder their friend, a British businessman, Neil Heywood, whose body was found in a city hotel on 15 November. For twelve weeks they got away with murder. They prevented an autopsy. They ordered police to attribute death to alcohol poisoning, although Heywood did not drink much. They silenced Heywood’s Chinese with threats and perhaps money.
Nothing would have continued to happen but for a bizarre intervention. In February, Bo’s once loyal vice mayor Wang Lijun suddenly appeared at the American consulate in Chengdu and told astonished American diplomats and intelligence officials enough of the truth and the cover-up. The Americans did not give him asylum, but ensured that he was handed over to Beijing rather than Bo’s henchmen, or he too might have died of “alcohol poisoning”. The cover provided by the Communist state to a politburo member, whose medieval self-enrichment and tyranny had been protected and implicitly encouraged by the state, was suddenly unsustainable. The Communists did not stop their crooked comrade because they wanted, but because they were forced to.
Bo Xilai was not a law unto himself; he was the law unto an oligarchy that has feasted, with a ravenous appetite, upon the prosperity of the nation. There is not enough space to go into rapacious details of how Bo, Gu and their immediate and extended family looted their country; but trust me, Indian corruption suddenly begins to look like small potatoes. Figures filtering through social media, considered reliable enough for quotation by responsible newspapers, indicate that Bo and Gu ferreted away at least $800 million to safe havens outside China. They made this money through a confection of fake jobs, and uncomplicated, old-fashioned bribery in cash or through shares of companies which got contracts. Heywood was a courier for their loot; they fought over the cost of cash-and-carry. Their son Bo Guagua’s champagne and Ferrari lifestyle in Britain and America was public. No fellow politburo member raised the delicate question of where his funds were coming from.
No one raised an eyebrow, because you would run out of eyebrows if you began raising one at every instance of high-level Chinese corruption. State media has reported that one railways official, Zhang Shugang, stole $2.8 billion and squirreled it out of China. A Chinese bank has said that some 18,000 officials had disappeared with $120 billion. This is merely what has been admitted.
Comparative figures for India are still in that nebulous zone of suspicion and speculation, but we can safely conclude that the corruption virus is free from ideological constraint. The last two decades have been good for both democratic India and authoritarian China, pushing them to the top of international attention. Now the two-timing tiger and double-faced dragon are offering fresh templates in corruption creativity, to the joy of a cluster of western banks where their loot is parked.
In both China and India, the political class has watched wealth being created at an unprecedented pace, to an unimaginable extent, and decided that it wants its share. The system is silent because it is complicit. It began with officials being on the take; they are now on the make, as never before. An IAS couple living in Bhopal has been discovered with many hundreds of crores raked from defense and other deals; the husband was once both signing a deal and responsible for vigilance. The dacoit was in charge of the police station. Both India and China have figureheads at the top who trot around the world’s capitals offering sagacious comment, and occasional advice, while behind their deliberately indifferent backs merry hell goes on.
The significant difference is that democracy provides Indians the chance to punish on an industrial scale, in election. Across the Himalayas, all that public opinion can do is speak in Chinese whispers. Chinese punishment is piecemeal, delivered under compulsion, when a scapegoat is needed to appease mass hunger minimally. Media, silent under orders, switches to a chorus under orders.
One murder, said the wise actor-philosopher Charlie Chaplin, makes a villain; if you kill millions, you become a hero. If everyone is a crook, no one is guilty. But there is one silver lining of reassurance. Even in China, it is still difficult to get away with murder.