JINAN, China: The family’s safes held more cash than an average Chinese might see in a lifetime. Their French villa was held through shell companies designed to avoid taxes and publicity. The son gallivanted around the world at huge expense.
The sensational corruption trial of Bo Xilai exposed the lavish lifestyle of one of China’s most powerful politicians, gripping the Communist-run country where mounting inequality has stoked public discontent.
The bribery and embezzlement charges against Bo, until last year the head of the megacity of Chongqing and one of China’s top-25 leaders, amount to 26.8 million yuan ($4.4 million).
And that only touches on a few business dealings in the early part of the 64-year-old’s career.
Bo defended himself against allegations from his wife Gu Kailai that she once saw $80,000 in bribe money by revealing the amount of ready cash they kept at home.
“In the shared safe there were hundreds of thousands of yuan, so how could she know the money she took out was from me?” he said, according to court accounts.
The ruling party mounted an apparently unusually open trial following its most explosive political scandal in decades.
The court in the eastern city of Jinan posted lengthy transcripts on its Twitter-like Weibo account each day—although their completeness and accuracy could not be verified.
Bo was charged with bribery amounting to 21.8 million yuan, embezzlement of 5.0 million yuan and abuse of power, all of which he vehemently denied during the five-day trial.
He is accused of accepting 20.7 million yuan in bribes from businessman Xu Ming, who testified for the prosecution.
The court heard that Xu paid for a $3.2 million villa in the French Riviera resort of Cannes after Gu said she wanted to buy it.
The six-bedroom mansion with a pool, shaded terrace and colonnaded balconies sits in an exclusive neighborhood overlooking the Mediterranean.
It was allegedly funded by Xu through three different companies and managed by others, so that neither Bo nor his family appeared on records as owners of the property.
The complex setup was “to avoid tax” and because “I didn’t want to bring any bad influence on [Bo],” according to Gu’s testimony.
Tang Xiaolin, another businessman, allegedly gave Bo 1.1 million yuan including the $80,000 seen by Gu after profiting from a land deal the politician helped facilitate.
Gu would grab thick wads of yuan and US dollars from safes in the couple’s homes during three trips back to China a year from England, where she lived with their only son Bo Guagua.
Both bribery accusations stemmed from Bo’s years overseeing Dalian city and its northeastern province Liaoning in the 1990s and early 2000s. He became national commerce minister in 2004 and Chongqing’s leader in 2007.
Their son meanwhile, attended top-notch schools and universities with hefty tuition fees including Harrow in Britain, Oxford, Harvard and, from this autumn, Columbia law school in New York.
Xu paid for Guagua to travel to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, as well as Italy, Latin America and Africa, and for toys such as an 80,000-yuan Segway scooter, the court heard.
Guagua charged $50,000 to his credit card—paid off by Xu—brought back a month’s worth of exotic meat from Africa and in 2011 treated 40 Harvard classmates to an expenses-paid trip to China.
At the same time in Chongqing, Bo—who during the trial admitted to having had extramarital affairs—mounted Maoist revivalist rallies chanting “Serve the People.”
Some Chinese would be surprised if a politician of Bo’s stature had not obtained even more wealth, said Steve Tsang, a China politics expert at the University of Nottingham in Britain.
“I think for a lot of people, the question would be, could this be it?” he said. “Surely someone in Bo’s position could and would have enjoyed much more than what was revealed in court.”
Many Chinese have come to expect ill-gotten riches of their leaders and Bo’s supporters may be willing to overlook his actions, said David Goodman, of the University of Sydney.
“Given that they’re all at it, why shouldn’t you support people you think have views that you think are acceptable?” he said.
“They don’t make a complicated calculus about, well, he’s corrupt but he’s for us—but that’s what it comes down to.”
Official corruption is rampant across China, as the leadership has acknowledged this year while vowing to crack down.
Multiple examples of excess have been revealed over recent months, even among low-level civil servants.
A county official in the southern province of Guangdong was found to own 22 properties worth as much as 40 million yuan, at a time when homes are becoming increasingly unaffordable for many.
But far greater wealth at the highest levels was exposed by Western media last year—and proved so sensitive that the outlets’ websites have since remained blocked inside China.
President Xi Jinping’s family was reported by Bloomberg to have investments worth $376 million, and the New York Times said former premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives had controlled assets worth $2.7 billion.