Chinese authorities have detained a wealthy businesswoman with strong financial ties to the country’s former premier, Wen Jiabao, The New York Times reported, with political analysts saying her detention, if confirmed, could be the next move in a power struggle among the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s elite families.
Previous reports have indicated that Duan Weihong, who uses the English name Whitney Duan, is a key figure in the finances of the Wen family, with The New York Times reporting in 2012 that his relatives controlled assets worth at least U.S.$2.7 billion.
The paper cited business associates of Duan’s as saying that she was detained by unknown agencies ahead of the 19th Party Congress last October.
“It is not clear who detained her, why and whether she is still being held,” the paper said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Huadu Hotel in Beijing, one of Duan’s businesses, said she wasn't there.
Meanwhile a member of staff who answered the phone at her Beijing Taihong Holdings Co. said she wasn’t there, either.
“I haven’t seen her for really quite a while now,” the second employee said, suggesting that she may have “left the country.”
Beijing-based constitutional scholar and political commentator Zhang Lifan said Duan, as an entrepreneur with close ties to the ruling party elite, could bear the brunt of any corruption probe if Wen’s family becomes a target of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive.
“Wen [Jiabao] put a lot of effort into the fall of Bo Xilai, and it’s hard to say whether or not he is now being investigated,” Zhang said. “Unless it’s a power struggle. These sorts of detentions are often a way of threatening an opponent with evidence, as leverage.”
“Duan Hongwei is sure to be in possession of huge amounts of evidence, and that fact that they have brought her in will be enough to intimidate the people she is acting for,” he said.
“These ‘arms length’ entrepreneurs are in a pretty vulnerable position, because they can be bandied around as a bargaining chip in a power struggle at any time.”
Politics and business intertwined
According to Bao Tong, former aide to China’s late, ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, China’s richest business-people are inextricably entwined with the country’s ruling political class.
“These entrepreneurs have an extremely close relationship with the Chinese government, or officials within it,” Bao told RFA. “The entrepreneurs are basically the government’s sidekicks.”
“We can see the links in the chain, and so the companies must do what the leaders say; then they will last for as long as the leaders do,” he said.
“They could be a billionaire today and a prisoner tomorrow, a conspirator, a criminal,” he said.
Pin Ho, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, said Wen’s family may have been given an easier time by graft investigators in return for their close cooperation on the case of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai.
“Wen Jiabao put a lot of effort into the cases against Bo Xilai and [former security czar] Zhou Yongkang, and so the corruption case against Wen’s family was shelved,” Ho told RFA. “Crisis was averted, because Wen’s son was at the helm of Ping An Insurance.”
“Wen’s family made several billion U.S. dollars out of Ping An Insurance during Wen Jiabao’s term as premier,” he said.
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the The City University of New York, said Duan is also a link between the more recently fallen former Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai, who is under investigation for corruption, and Wen’s family.
“After Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, Sun Zhengcai was the most powerful man in Shunyi county, Beijing,” Xia said. “He controlled all of the rights to the land near Beijing International Airport.”
“Duan Weihong and her ex-husband Shen Dong were running a business that acquired the land nearby that was needed for the widening of the airport expressway,” he said. “A lot of the shares in Duan’s property company were held by members of Wen’s family.”
“The investigation into Sun Zhengcai has become a massive case, although it’s as yet unclear how much of an impact this will have on Wen Jiabao personally,” he said. “But his two grown children are deeply involved, and they will definitely feel the impact.”
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.