The List

China's Game of Thrones

Four Chinese leaders who show just how corrupt the system has become. 

Chinese leaders enjoy a level of privacy unheard of in the West; the often vast business and political dealings of their families are shrouded in mystery by design. Only when Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai fell from grace in March did he expose himself to scrutiny from the outside world, illuminating the web of connections that bound him and his family to global business and political interests.

Since Bo's downfall, Chinese officials and intellectuals have taken the rare step of speaking specifically about his case, allowing Western journalists to uncover details about the Bo family and providing what is likely the clearest picture of cronyism among princelings, the sons and daughters of those who have held high-ranking posts in the Chinese leadership.

Bo's brother Bo Xiyong resigned in April after reports that, going by the name Li Xueming, he made millions as a director of the alternative energy company China Everbright International. (Bo's surname is rare in China; Li is very common). His wife Gu Kailai, herself the daughter of a PLA general, stands accused of the murder of British businessmen Neil Heywood after he threatened to expose her for planning to transfer money overseas illegally. Bloomberg reported that Bo's relatives are worth at least $136 million.

In recent years, only the Bo clan has had its affairs ingloriously paraded in front of the international media -- the  business ties of top leaders like President Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping remain mostly unknown. But here are four senior Chinese leaders whose web of connections have already been probed, and whose full exposure would most increase the outside world's understanding of how the system works.


The high-ranking official most compromised by the Bo scandal may be Zhou Yongkang. Officially ranked ninth on the Politburo Standing Committee, the top governmental body in China, until this year Zhou not only controlled China's vast domestic security apparatus including its cops, special police, and judges through his official position, but also had special connections from working in the oil sector for 40 years, which gave him a considerable amount of influence into China's energy policy, especially in places like Iran and Sudan. He also ran the office that cracks down on the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and coordinated policy on Xinjiang, China's restive Muslim region in the far northwest.  "Even someone like Hu Jintao, who nominally controls the military, has to give Zhou Yongkang considerable respect," says an academic who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Some China experts think that in 2011, Zhou was the third most powerful person in the Chinese government.

But now Zhou, who has been described as "a man who brightens any room by leaving it" might have a much weaker grip on power. In the February meeting of the National People's Congress, eight days before Bo was removed from his post as Chongqing party secretary, Zhou was reportedly the only Standing Committee member who disagreed with the decision to investigate and remove Bo. Since then, rumors have flown that Zhou helped plot a coup with Bo, and the Financial Times reported that Zhou has given up all of his security roles.

How severely has Zhou been affected by Bo's downfall? There have been no clear official signs that Zhou's power is on the wane; at 69 years old, he is set to step down at the next People's Congress, planned for this autumn. As the head of internal security, the management of people like Chen Guangcheng falls under Zhou's remit; did Chen's dramatic escape in April weaken Zhou or was it a sign of Zhou's weakness? If Zhou leaves the Standing Committee before the fall, China's political crisis will have been far more deep and dangerous than we knew.


Wen Jiabao has been China's premier since 2002, and is a well-liked and sympathetic figure among Chinese liberals. In major appearances, Wen has called loudly for political reform: in his press conference before the sacking of Bo Xilai he even used the word "reform" 70 times.  "It's his final days, and I think he's generally playing to history and future generations," says a former high-ranking U.S. official, who met him while serving in the Obama administration. "He has done this often enough, and in language different from others, so that I believe [he's sincere about reform]." Wen, the only member of the Standing Committee to have granted interviews to Western media, has also seemed to benefit the most among the current leadership from the purge of Bo.

But Wen's reformist credentials are likely weakened by the business interests of his family. His son Winston formerly ran a private equity firm called First Horizon Capital; he now runs a state-owned satellite company. Wen's wife is thought to be deeply involved in the gem business. Rumors swirled a few years ago in Beijing that the supposed corruption of Wen's family would bring him down; the question now seems to be whether there is any consensus in the Standing Committee for instituting Wen's political reforms.


Cronyism is not the only way family members can hurt one's cause. In the 1980s, Yu was a promising young official, with a deep red background: His father Huang Jing was the first-ever Communist party secretary of Tianjin (and also an early husband of Jiang Qing, who went on to become Madame Mao); his father in law was reportedly a former PLA general. But in 1985 Yu's brother, formerly the director of the Beijing National Security Bureau, defected to the United States. The defection not only brought down a Chinese spy in the CIA, but also nearly torpedoed Yu's career. He spent the next dozen years working his way up through relatively low-level positions in the coastal province of Shandong.

Now some analysts are predicting that Yu, the party secretary of Shanghai, might receive a seat on the Standing Committee this fall ; his brother's whereabouts remain unknown.


Li Peng was China's premier from 1987 to 1998. Known as "the Butcher of Beijing" for his role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Li's name returns to the public eye whenever calls for re-assessing the 1989 massacre re-emerge. (What actually happened at the top level remains in dispute, though Li is widely thought to have been one of the leading voices advocating that troops open fire on Tiananmen Square.)

Li, currently the vice-governor of Shanxi, is not officially a princeling, but he is the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, China's premier under Mao, a connection that helped him climb the ranks. Li managed the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, and two of his children inherited his love for power -- the electric kind. His daughter Li Xiaolin is the CEO of China Power International Development, which had revenues of $2.2 billion in 2010, and his son, currently vice-governor of Shanxi, one of China's major coal producing provinces, was formerly CEO of China Huaneng Group, one of the largest Chinese power generators.

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The List

The Five Worst Atrocities of the Syrian Uprising

Time and again, the Syrian regime has shocked the world. But those hoping the international community would be spurred into action have been just as frequently disappointed.

The Syrian government's crackdown on protesters and armed rebels has produced a seemingly endless stream of grim and grisly days, with more than 9,000 civilians perishing in the violence since March 2011, according to U.N. estimates. Yet some incidents have garnered more international attention than others, either due to the scale of the bloodshed or the savagery of the attack.

The slaughter of more than 100 people on Friday in Houla, a series of villages near the Syrian city of Homs, is proving to be one of these incidents. The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the killings, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan hurriedly organized a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to salvage his peace plan, and governments around the world expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. Der Spiegel is calling the massacre "Syria's My Lai," while Reuters has described it as "an atrocity that shook world opinion out of growing indifference." But a look at the incidents that have played this role most prominently during the 14-month-old uprising suggests that the outrage will fade away once the headlines do.


Last May, gruesome images of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib's mutilated body stunned the international community. Here's how the New York Times described the footage at the time:

Video posted online shows his battered, purple face. His skin is scrawled with cuts, gashes, deep burns and bullet wounds that would probably have injured but not killed. His jaw and kneecaps are shattered, according to an unidentified narrator, and his penis chopped off.

"These are the reforms of the treacherous Bashar," the narrator says. "Where are human rights? Where are the international criminal tribunals?"

Human rights activists claimed that the boy had been arrested at a protest in southern Syria, tortured to death, and handed over to his family in return for their silence. Syria's state-run media, for its part, contended that Hamza died from gunshot wounds during an attack by armed groups on Syrian forces, and that Bashar al-Assad met with the boy's family to express his condolences as soon as authorities were able to identify the corpse.

Hamza's death inspired a popular Facebook page and mass anti-government demonstrations across Syria. "Arab revolutions -- and associated social and international media -- seem to thrive on icons," the BBC's Jim Muir wrote at the time, "and the Syrian revolt appears to have found one."



As Ramadan approached last July, activists wondered whether the Muslim holy month would breathe new life into their movement, since people would have an easier time organizing protests while gathering in mosques for evening prayers after each day's fast. But on the eve of Ramadan, the Syrian military stormed Hama, which had become a protest hub as soon as government forces withdrew from the area in late June (the flashpoint city had previously been the scene of a chilling massacre in 1982 under Bashar al-Assad's father). Activists feverishly uploaded videos of the violence, which left as many as 300 people dead in six days, according to opposition activists.

In response, U.S. President Barack Obama and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued their strongest critiques of the Assad regime yet, and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia turned heads by sharply escalating their criticism. Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the bloodshed "unacceptable" while Saudi King Abdullah urged Damascus to "stop the killing machine" and recalled his ambassador to Syria. Nevertheless, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence never got off the ground.



In December 2011, as Arab League officials prepared to travel to Syria to monitor a peace plan, activists reported that Syrian forces had surrounded villagers in a valley in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, killing more than 100 people with an onslaught of rockets, tank shells, and bombs in an effort to root out army defectors -- particularly ahead of the Arab League mission. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the attack "an organized massacre" and the "bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution" up to that point,  while the Syrian government did not comment on the claims.

In the aftermath of the assault, the opposition Syrian National Council called for the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency meetings and develop plans to protect Syrian civilians. But the incident mainly elicited tough words from Western leaders and the Arab League peace initiative ultimately failed.

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images


In early February, Syrian forces began a month-long siege of the Baba Amr district of Homs that eventually forced the rebel Free Syrian Army to withdraw from its stronghold. As photos and video attest, the relentless bombardment reduced the neighborhood to rubble. While there has not been an overall estimate of the death toll in Baba Amr, Reuters noted at the time that residents who fled to Lebanon spoke of "a martyr if not more" in every house and "the smell of decomposed bodies, sewage, and destruction" hanging in the air. The American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were among those who died in the shelling.

While China and Russia blocked aggressive action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council, they did join other world powers in demanding that U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos be granted access to Baba Amr. When Syrian officials eventually acquiesced, Amos was devastated by what she saw. "That part of Homs is completely destroyed," she explained, "and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city."



On May 25, 2012, 108 people -- including 49 children and 34 women -- were murdered in Houla, according to the United Nations, with entire families gunned down in their homes and most of the victims summarily executed. The Syrian regime blamed the violence in the largely Sunni area, which the Syrian military had been shelling in possible retaliation for a rebel assault on an Alawite village, on "armed terrorist groups," while witnesses and survivors told U.N. investigators that pro-government militias were responsible for the bloodshed. A couple days later, opposition activists reported a bloody government assault on nearby Hama.

Repeated violations of Kofi Annan's peace plan had made a mockery of the ceasefire for some time before the slaughter in Houla. But the news threw the international community's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria into sharp relief. The U.N. Security Council condemned the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons in Houla in a rare display of solidarity, though the non-binding statement did not assign blame for the executions and Russia, which has long vetoed more robust Security Council action on Syria, later argued that Syrian rebels -- and perhaps a mysterious "third force" -- were partly to blame for the massacre. Still, the New York Times claims that the Security Council's move armed Annan with a "new mandate" for his peace plan as he met with Assad in Damascus, and the coordinated decision by Western countries to expel Syrian diplomats has left the Assad regime more isolated than ever before.

To be sure, the Syrian government isn't the only party that has been accused of atrocities. Last June, for example, the Syrian authorities blamed armed gangs for killing more than 120 security forces in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, though opposition activists denied the allegations. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested earlier this month that al Qaeda militants orchestrated twin suicide car bombings in Damascus that killed 55 people.

But beyond the confusion about who is behind the atrocities is the question of whether these high-profile massacres have meaningfully altered the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. Even in the wake of the Houla killings, there's little appetite among world powers for military intervention, and engineering a Yemen-style transfer of power in Syria at this juncture could be incredibly difficult. As Reuters noted on Tuesday, Russia does not appear to see Houla as a "game-changer" when it comes to supporting tougher action against Syria at the Security Council.

When this week's frenzied but largely symbolic diplomatic activity subsides, in other words, the international community may be no closer to devising a solution to the intractable crisis in Syria than it was before this weekend's horrific violence.