Zeng became the central go-to man for favors, positions, and advice. He took special care of the children, like Bo Xilai, whose parents had helped president Jiang get the top job and then keep it. He managed tricky rivalries between China's most headstrong princelings, in one case adjudicating between two factions inside the state-owned CITIC conglomerate, each of which was headed by the son of a vice president.
Zeng was known for his ability to engage intelligently and affably on almost any subject with almost anyone. "He is open minded, warm, and tolerant even to dissidents," says Dai Qing, a writer and public activist who is the adopted daughter of a leading revolutionary, and who was jailed for her involvement in the Tiananmen protests. In 1991, shortly after Dai's release from jail, she phoned Zeng, whom she had known since working together in China's embryonic space industry in the 1960s, and received his support to be the mainland-based editor-in-chief of Echo, an independently minded Taiwanese magazine. "Everyone knew he was powerful then -- as Jiang Zemin's ‘right hand' -- and if I had his support then no one could stop my investigations," she says. "Personally, I like Zeng Qinghong. He is a nice guy with a clear mind. But in this system whether you are bad or good there is no way to avoid becoming incapable of action and corrupted."
Ultimately, Zeng signed up to the tradition of the party elders, like Bo Xilai's father Bo Yibo, that loyalty to the party and its founding families transcends individual justice. And Zeng's prodigious powers of persuasion apparently stopped at his own front door: He couldn't control his own son.
In 1993, Zeng asked a family friend to place his then 24-year-old son Zeng Wei in a Melbourne university because he had been unable to gain a place in China's intensely competitive elite university system. "Let him go out and work, in a restaurant, don't let him lean on others," said the father, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Zeng's friend duly found a financial sponsor in the Chinese community and arranged university admission and accommodation. But Zeng Wei never turned up.
Zeng Qinghong proudly explained to his friend that his son had decided instead to become an ordinary businessman, selling real things that people needed; he had even delivered his father a truckload of watermelons to prove it. He didn't have any inkling that within one year after Zeng Wei's no-show in Melbourne, he had progressed from selling fruit to promoting multi-million-dollar events. A friend recalls seeing Zeng Wei in a corporate box at the Workers' Stadium in 1994, for an exhibition soccer match between the Beijing soccer team and AC Milan, and embarrassing himself by trying to make an introduction with the powerful CITIC boss, Wang Jun. "Wang Jun said, ‘I know him well. Zeng Wei sponsored the game, he invited AC Milan'," recalls the friend."He went from study, to watermelons, to this!"
Ambitious businessmen across the country, including many princeling children of his father's friends, were falling over themselves to cut deals and be seen to be close to the son of China's most important political power broker. Zeng Wei became close friends with Wang Yi, the deputy chairman of the Securities Regulatory Commission, the regulatory body that oversees China's stock markets, according to two friends of the Zeng family. The friendship blossomed as the regulator was discovering it had access to valuable information about state-owned companies seeking to list on China's nascent stock exchanges, and the power to make or break fortunes by providing private companies with listing approvals.
It wasn't just other Chinese that sought favor with powerful princelings. In 1999, Zeng Qinghong was appointed head of the Organization Department, the Communist Party body responsible for appointing all the top provincial heads, ministers, and corporate chiefs in the country. Later that year Rupert Murdoch, early to grasp the potential of the Chinese marketplace -- and the importance of princelings in China's power hierarchy -- got wind that Zeng Qinghong would be touring Australia and rushed across the Pacific to intercept him. Zeng dropped into his Fox studios, where Zeng was introduced to Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor on the set of Moulin Rouge. "He had a grin from ear to ear," says a source who accompanied Zeng on the visit.
Zeng then went to dinner at Rupert's son Lachlan's mansion, at Wolseley Road Point Piper, one of the world's most expensive streets. One of Sydney's finest restaurants was closed for the day so that its chefs could prepare a seafood extravaganza featuring huge green lip abalone, to be consumed as the sun set over the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Murdoch brought in the Aboriginal singer-guitarist Jimmy Little to perform and the arts consultant Jean Battersby to hang the finest of his Australian works on the walls.
Murdoch was accompanied by his newly wedded wife, Wendi Deng, dressed in a
body-hugging green outfit. She performed as Zeng's guide and translator and
took the lead in persuading him why News Corporation's Star TV should be beamed
into China. "Wendi was definitely running the show," says an official who was
present. The official, and another source present say Zeng impressed his hosts
with poise, good humor, and engaging curiosity. Zeng returned the hospitality
the following year by hosting Murdoch and Deng at the Chinese opera in Beijing.
Zeng was also taken to Brisbane's iconic Breakfast Creek Hotel, where he clearly enjoyed taking off his tie, rolling up his sleeves, and drinking jugs of beer with the local punters and union officials. He spoke engagingly about democracy and China's need for political reform with officials on a Brisbane river cruise. But he was most impressed, it seems, with the Murdochs' stunning Sydney Harbour views. Nine years later, in March 2008, his son bought the $32 million mansion, with an identical harbor vista, diagonally across the road. (Gavan Slaughter, a spokesman who helps take care of Zeng Wei's Sydney residence, said the Zeng family was out of town and "unlikely to respond to questions." A Murdoch spokesman declined to comment.)