For years, Xu Ming (徐明), once a little-known entrepreneur from northeastern China, worked his way into the good graces of the families of China’s political elite.
He cared for the parents and children of the powerful, accompanied officials on foreign trips and enriched their relatives — as well as himself — through early investments in businesses that eventually went public.
However, Xu is now in custody and one of his most important relationships has become a central piece of evidence in the much anticipated trial of former Chongqing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), which began on Thursday morning, according to a microblog post by the court handling the case.
Xu, who is 42, funneled millions of dollars in bribes to Bo and his family, including paying for trips to Europe and perhaps even giving the family a US$3.5 million villa on the French Riviera, according to people briefed on the indictment against Bo that was read by the prosecution when the trial got under way.
Those charges — along with accusations that Bo abused power by obstructing a murder investigation — could result in a lengthy prison term for Bo, the son of a communist revolutionary and a former top Chinese leader whose fall from power last year shook the political establishment in Beijing.
However, analysts say that the CCP’s decision to rely on evidence linked to the businessman could also be risky because Bo was by no means Xu’s only political patron.
Although the trial itself was closed to the public and its proceedings expected to be released only selectively by state media, judicial scrutiny of how broad political connections can greatly enrich an otherwise obscure businessman could prove delicate to more than one member of the Chinese leadership — and raise questions about whether Xu’s ties to other leaders should receive legal scrutiny.
There have been no publicly announced charges against Xu and there is no evidence that his links to other prominent political clans included the kind of direct payments he was alleged to have made to Bo.
However, according to public records obtained by the New York Times, Xu had close business and personal ties to family members of several senior Chinese officials, including former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who was one of Bo’s chief political rivals.
Xu had unusual access to the homes of Beijing leaders, offered to care for some of their parents and even traveled with some of them on official visits abroad, according to longtime business partners of Xu’s and government travel records.
For instance, in 2002, he accompanied then-Chinese state councilor Wu Yi (吳儀) on a trip to the Middle East. Back home, visitors to his company, Dalian Shide, included CCP politburo members Huang Ju (黃菊) and Li Changchun (李長春), who have since stepped down.
In addition, starting in the late 1990s, Xu invested in a series of private companies with the relatives of Wen, who retired in March last year. Xu for a time even dated Wen’s only daughter, Wen Ruchun (溫如春), according to close associates.
“He was a public relations genius,” said Larry Cheng (程毅君), one of Xu’s longtime business partners. “He was helping everyone in the leadership. He knew just who to get close to and how to do it.”
Xu and members of the Wen family could not be reached for comment, but Xu’s ability to curry favor with China’s ruling elite shines a light on how some business gets done in the country’s tightly regulated economy.