China and Tony Blair: the wealth circuit

China is a favoured stopover for a former prime minister with money on his mind. But this is a game that his hosts too are playing, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
15 September 2010

The Shanghai summer of 2010 was so hot and steaming that even Shanghainese complained about it. But close behind as conversation topic for many in the city, at least when confronted with a visitor from the United Kingdom, is the lucrative exploits of Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair.

During his premiership (1997-2007), Blair visited the People’s Republic of China only twice. Now, he passes through Beijing and Shanghai every few months. There is no evidence that his current projects - including the promotion of his modestly titled book A Journey - extend to any public role in the area: brokering a peace initiative, promoting the green economy, even preaching the merits of globalisation. The conclusion must be that he is here to chase his new passion - making money.

Many British people are sharply critical of their former leader’s embrace of a super-rich lifestyle fuelled by enormous payments for “consultancy” speeches and personal appearances. Chinese people by contrast tend to discuss his presence in their midst with the steady tolerance towards personal accumulation of wealth that is one of their most striking (and endearing) characteristics. In part this reflects an internalisation of the message Deng Xiaoping is reputed to have given at the start of the epic reform process he initiated in 1979: “to get rich is glorious”.

The Shenzhen sign

The heartland of the reforms was the southern settlement of Shenzhen, near the border with Hong Kong. Shenzhen was a small Cantonese fishing town, which - with three others - was in 1980 nominated as a “special economic zone” (SEZ). The strong debate among the party elite about giving the SEZ permission to manufacture and export for foreign enterprises was resolved within two years, when Shenzhen was posting growth-rates of 45%. Even hardliners like Deng Liqun fell silent before shock-and-awe growth like this.

Shenzhen is now a city of 10 million people, with per-capita GDP levels close to the most developed countries and a middle-class containing some of the China’s most dynamic - and internationalised - entrepreneurs. It may now be playing a different role in China’s future, as a place of (now decade-long) sporadic political experimentation. The city has a poor cultural image (its best offering so far is a replica of major global attractions displayed in a public park) - but it is right next to Hong Kong, with its openness and (albeit limited) democratic institutions. 

Shenzhen organised its own township elections in the late 1990s, which failed to develop further. But China’s premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao have during recent visits both referred (in different terms) to the need for deeper political reform. The idea has started to circulate that Shenzhen may become a special political zone as well as an economic one.

The good deal

Where Shenzhen and Tony Blair intersect is that it is only places like this and the nearby Donguan that can afford his now astronomical speaking-fees. Blair was reported in 2007 to have earned $500,000 for one short speech in the city. Now the Cantonese are among the world’s shrewdest businesspeople, and some journalists inquired whether his hosts in the area might feel short-changed. On the contrary: Blair’s mere presence for a time in their city was seen as money well spent. Blair’s ability to talk Cantonese out of such sums impressed almost everyone I spoke to in China about this - including the Cantonese themselves.

The Chinese also recognise that Blair’s visits are closely tied to China’s rise towards the status of a global superpower. Among the many other consequences and problems this brings is that China will join the United States and other countries as part of a lucrative “global circuit” of eminent former leaders. The shifting balance of world financial power may even make China a more attractive destination as corporate and institutional income-streams start to flow more thickly. And the appeal of China to leaders such as Tony Blair will not be lessened by the fact that most of his audiences will understand very little of what they are saying.

A broader generational shift is also occurring. Political leaders are getting younger (Blair was 43 when he reached the top job, Barack Obama 47); this means too that ex-leaders are ever younger - and hang around longer (Obama, if re-elected, will be 55 when he leaves office - which could mean thirty more years of public activity of some sort). Bill Clinton is already setting the standard.

The Chinese version

By the time the “sixth generation” of Chinese leaders comes to power after 2022, will China become an active source for as well as a staging-post on the circuit? China’s senior leaders are now obliged to retire at 67. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and their successors may still be active for a decade and more after they retire. After the leadership transition in 2012, will they begin to speak at conferences in Europe and north America for massive fees? Will they even produce lengthy “revealing memoirs” on the Tony Blair model, containing lurid detail of mutual loathing on the politburo tempered by pious claims that they had to maintain face for the sake of a “harmonious society?

There is, remarkable to note, a precedent here in the memoir of ex-politburo member Li Lanqing, released in 2009 - though admittedly these restricted themselves to fraction of his career, with no mention of the events in Tiananmen in 1989. And one political victim of that tragedy, party secretary Zhao Ziyang, secretly wrote and (in the west) published his reflections on the debates among the leadership before and during the crisis.

Perhaps in turn the west has something to learn. In the 1980s, a group of China’s elder leaders was gathered into an informal advisory council. Something of the sort exists in the transnational group known as “The Elders”. A model that encourages a focused contribution to the public good from former politicians rather than individual enrichment would be at least worth aiming for. And even China’s fiercest critics would not wish on it a local version of Tony Blair, a statesman-turned-salesman with himself and the faded aura of power the extortionate product.

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