BEIJING - Men conquer women by conquering the world; women conquer the world by conquering men. This ancient Western proverb is often cited by Chinese in reference to Cleopatra, and her conquest of Julius Caesar.
In 2000, I was responsible for covering the story of Cheng Kejie, the former vice chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, who was sentenced to death, along with his mistress, in a bribery scandal. I discovered that this Western saying, with its old, rich, feudal image, still applies in our modern Chinese society, where emperors, in theory, have long since abdicated.
The day of his execution, September 14, 2000, Cheng Kejie was dressed up nicely in his suit and tie, his hair neatly combed. Before entering the execution chamber he turned around and with a calm expression on his face shook hands with the executioner, "execution officer", and the doctor. Eight minutes later Cheng received a lethal injection and died in utter disgrace.
When talking about the fall of Cheng Kejie, people, of course, always remember his mistress, 21 years his junior. Commentators were always convinced that this attractive younger woman was at the root of Cheng’s corruption and troubles, pushing him down the road to death after she had conquered him.
The woman was the daughter-in-law of Cheng’s former superior, and eight years prior to Cheng's fall, she had asked several favors from him, and begun their affair.
After his rise to become one of China’s state leaders, Cheng Kejie was nicknamed the "King of Guangxi" when he was designated as the Chairman of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region government. The woman who conquered the King of Guangxi in turn became the "Jiang Qing of Guangxi." The conquest of a local king brings with it the conquest of his territory. Cheng’s subordinates, as well as local businessmen, created all sorts of opportunities to get close to her, made themselves humble before her, and thus corrupted Cheng through her.
In a context with no checks and balances, public power was thus privatized. Businessmen sought benefits through the mistress of Cheng as their trustee. Subordinates were willing to pay her to buy their promotions, a process known as maiguan in Chinese. Her power was silent but supreme.
For seven years before his dereliction of duty was exposed, Cheng and his lover extorted more than 40 million RMB, which they deposited in a Hong Kong bank.
A new case of corruption
Cheng wound up as the highest-ranking official ever executed in Communist China. At his death, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of China’s Communist Party reminded senior officials to learn a lesson, to exercise the power in their hands correctly. The state media declared that "everybody is equal before the law."
Twelve years later, there is another prominent Chinese woman who conquered a top-level official -- and the media has been filled with the same stuff. She is of course Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai.
In the territory of the "Chongqing King," she became Chongqing's Jiang Qing. But she was even more daring than Cheng’s mistress, and pushed the privatization of public power from her husband to an extreme. When she wanted to kill a foreigner, her orderly became her accomplice. The public security bureau’s chief and other police officers became her “detainees” and tried to cover up her crime.
The story that shocked the world proved once again that in the 21st century, when a woman conquers a man, it can still be tantamount to the conquest of his land. And once again we hear the admonition that “All people are equal before the law.”
It is of course necessary that everybody be treated equally. Nevertheless, just because there are laws to abide by and alarm bells to sound does not mean that our country is a state under the rule of law.
The implementation of the law includes four key components: law enforcement, administration of justice, law-abiding behavior, and supervision of law. Equality before the law must run through them all.
To prevent the feudal display of a woman's abuse of public power through her man, each of these four links has to stick to the principle of equality before the law. And one must say "no" to the privatization of public power.
Alas, in these two different cases, the high officials who had a duty to abide by the law did not believe in the principle of equality before the law. And the supervision of law was absent.
Montesquieu, the French thinker, already said this 250 years ago. When the power of legislative, executive and judicial branches are controlled by one person or the same group of people, freedom will be lost.
Behind this famous phrase is the idea of the separation of powers. The fathers of the U.S. Constitution accepted this idea, and put in place the system of “checks and balances.” America’s implementation of this system, of three branches of power, would be an inspiring way of preventing what is happening in China.
I do not take it for granted that the Three Branches is the ideal political system. The way in which the powers should be separated is less important. What is most important is the principle and implementation of checks and balances. Without this, public power is bound to be privatized -- and such abuses of power will tempt too many, men and women alike.