I had seriously underestimated how much the Communist Party had inoculated itself against the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment that underpin capitalism in the West. Webs of patronage, bribery, and thuggery extended deep into the political machine. The tools of coercion, cooption, and censorship -- so effective in revolution and keeping the Party in power -- were being deployed for the benefit of individuals within the elite.
Following the money in just the coal sector led to the mistress of China's minister of labor, a provincial governor, and relatives of more senior officials, including the son of a former vice president. From 2010, I was drawn to the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, whose maverick party boss Bo Xilai was using mafia-like tactics to clear the mafia from the streets and consolidate his power. "Is China Becoming a Mafia State?" I asked in a mini-lecture tour in the United States, which triggered some feisty banter at the Beijing Public Security Bureau when it came time to discuss my annual visa renewal at the end of 2011.
When Chinese-Australians had their assets stripped and were imprisoned, I did my best to make it harder for Canberra to pretend these were mere "consular matters." Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat whose charisma and flair for words had earned him millions of fans on the Chinese Internet, told me that if foreign governments could not protect their own citizens in China, then what hope could Chinese citizens have?
Yang lived with his family in Sydney but worked at the center of a vast Chinese network of extraordinary journalists, intellectuals, and activists, who were challenging the Party's monopoly on truth by broadcasting the reality of events and highlighting the absurdity of official pronouncements. He was renowned for having powerful government protectors which enabled him to work and publish in China when others were banned, harassed or worse.
I experienced my own mini-earthquake in March 2011, at the height of Beijing's fears that the struggle of the Arab Spring would spread to China, when Yang himself "was disappeared" -- to use the passive phrasing that has evolved to evade censors on the Chinese Internet. I worked furiously, desperately, and found it difficult to look my own children in the eye. Tara was relieved, for our family's sake, when he re-emerged a few days later.
China had arrived in the age of Sina Weibo. Despite severe restrictions, a virtual civil society was constructing itself where physical networks could not. My earlier grassroots explorations were now being made by hundreds of capable Chinese including Maya Li, who had rejoined the Southern Media Group. I moved my tools to the virgin country of elite politics, where a foreign passport gave me cover to investigate. The battle for China's future was rapidly spreading from the industrial trenches to the founding families of Chinese communism. For me, the venues shifted from frozen black-soil fields and coal-mines to tea houses, cadre apartments, and, occasionally, the grand, imperial courtyard houses of inner Beijing. It took years, but gradually the princelings -- a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders -- shared their histories, aspirations and, increasingly, their anger. Individually, they shared a sense of crisis and a conviction that the system needed to change. Collectively, however, they were trapped in a cage of money, brutality, privilege, and insecurity that offered no clear way out. Could they reform the regime their parents had founded without causing its collapse?
Bo Xilai was the first powerful princeling to publically articulate the growing sense of crisis, but his Mao-flavored cure was deemed more dangerous than the disease. In early 2012, the great challenger was vanquished, in sordid and sensational style; Beijing later jailed his police chief for attempting to defect to the United States, and convicted his wife of murder. Bo's family rival Xi Jinping emerged victorious, united the princelings, and took his place as president of China in November. And the stakes kept growing higher.
These past six years have been a privilege, but this year it felt like time to go. The kids were getting older, the contradictions were getting harder to explain, and the smog was getting worse. In May, I stopped in Guangzhou to thank my cadre friend for sharing his knowledge and being a potential backstop if anything went wrong. The dinner was long and wine flowed freely. We were genuinely close -- red envelopes notwithstanding -- and his princeling status gave him license to speak freely, but his particular official position meant we were actors in a bigger game.
After losing the battle of the red envelopes, I carefully documented to headquarters the 30 crisp $100 bills. But Tara laughed when she saw the black leather satchel I had unthinkingly accepted was actually a Swiss beauty, worth perhaps a thousand dollars.
The cash went to charity. And the Bally bag, courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party, went up for auction at an illegal and lightly persecuted organization: the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.