Reuters – In China they are known as “princelings” — the privileged children of the revolutionary founders of the People’s Republic of China. And in the generational leadership change that just took place in Beijing, it could not have been clearer that having the right family bloodlines is among the most important attributes an ambitious cadre could possess.
Of the seven men who now comprise the Communist Party’s new politburo standing committee, the apex of political power in China, four are members of “the red aristocracy”, led by the new general secretary of the party, Xi Jinping.
The thriving of the princelings should not be a surprise, analysts and party insiders say. Rarely in its six decades in power has the party been under more stress. Public anger over widespread corruption, widening income inequality and vast environmental degradation have chipped away at its legitimacy.
The party’s over-arching goal is to maintain its grip on the nation, and moving so many princelings into top positions is akin to taking out a political insurance policy.
“Fundamentally, princelings advocate maintaining one-party dictatorship,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator. “This is (their) bottom line.”
The rise of the princelings comes despite the fall of one of their own ambitious brethren, Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, himself a one-time contender for the standing committee and a son of one of Mao Zedong’s closest comrades. Earlier this year, Bo’s wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman in one of modern China’s biggest political scandals.
Bo himself faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power.
But in the wrangling over the new leadership, the princelings got a boost from former president and party elder Jiang Zemin, 86, widely viewed as a backroom powerbroker. Jiang had long supported Xi’s rise and helped get another princeling onto the standing committee.
Jiang sees himself as a princeling as well, party sources say. His uncle, who died in 1939, is hailed as a martyr of the revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949. Jiang additionally hopes that backing Xi will preserve his legacy and protect his family.
Party insiders say Jiang wants to make sure his two sons, both of whom are successful businessmen, are protected at a time of enhanced scrutiny of the wealth accumulated by the families of the country’s top leadership.
The new standing committee is the first to be dominated by princelings. Jiang’s successor, outgoing president Hu Jintao, was the first among equals in the previous line-up, which comprised mainly technocrats and bureaucrats.
But now, according to several analysts, most senior party members have fallen in line with what late economic tsar and one-time standing committee member Chen Yun once said: “The land under heaven should one day be handed to princelings, who can be trusted not to dig the party’s grave.”
PRINCELING IN CHIEF
In addition to Xi, 59, those on the committee with familial ties to the country’s red founders are Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who will lead the party’s efforts to contain corruption; former Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng, 67, the oldest member on the committee; and Zhang Dejiang, who studied economics in North Korea and replaced Bo as party boss in Chongqing.
Beyond their commitment to party rule, insiders say the princelings’ inclinations on the critical issues facing China – especially political and economic reform – are harder to discern. Xi has used standard party rhetoric since taking the top job, saying China must “continue reforming and opening up”.
The princelings, analysts said, tend to be bound not by strong policy preferences, but by their privileges and the conviction they were born to rule.
“The way they rode to power is very similar, but whether they share the same outlook, the same preferences for policies, I think that’s not really the case,” said Damian Ma, a China watcher at the Eurasia Group think tank.
Some analysts are cautiously optimistic that a leadership dominated by Xi and the other princelings might move with surprising boldness.
One Beijing-based political analyst, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding discussions on the leadership, said princelings believe it is their birthright to rule, and act accordingly. Analysts contrast them with leaders from a rival political faction, the Communist Youth League which produced President Hu.
“(The princelings) are naturally more confident and bolder than the children of commoners like Hu, whom they see as a mere caretaker, or a hired CEO,” the analyst said. “The CEO is more prudent. The stakeholders are more anxious than the CEO if the company is not doing well. Princelings are likely to be bolder in pushing for change.”
Some members of the political elite believe the party, after a decade of stagnation on political reform, needs to move quickly to improve government transparency, accountability and the rule of law, as well as allow more freedom of expression. They point hopefully to Xi’s princeling bloodlines.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, who gave refuge to Mao during the Long March from 1934 to 1936, was a liberal. As party secretary of Guangdong in 1980, the elder Xi convinced Deng Xiaoping to allow him to set up market-oriented special economic zones in the province, the first place to do so in the Communist era. He also opposed the army crackdown on student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and championed the rights of Tibetans and other minority groups.
Others believe Xi junior’s public comments and writings, however rare, indicate he and the other princelings are pragmatists.
A TALE OF TWO PRINCELINGS
Xi’s ascension, along with the other members of the red aristocracy, came at an awkward moment for the princelings.
Their princeling comrade Bo Xilai was ousted in March as party boss of Chongqing, lost his seat in the wider Politburo in April and was expelled from the party in September.
But the downfall of such a high-profile princeling, analysts suggested, was not necessarily unhealthy. At a time of deepening cynicism about the leadership among many Chinese, it showed that when a princeling breaks the law, “his crime is the same as that of a lawbreaking commoner”, commentator Zhang said, quoting a Chinese proverb.
The different outcomes for Xi and Bo also suggest that even for the offspring of well-connected families, the way they wield power matters. By all accounts, Xi mostly kept his head down and did what was asked of him as he rose through the party’s ranks.
Bo, by contrast, was flamboyant by Chinese political standards and played the family card if he thought it could help.
Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was one of the so-called “eight immortals,” and helped guide China away from some of the most disastrous policies of the Mao era. He died in 2007.
At one point before the elder Bo’s death, President Hu summoned Bo and Xi and offered them the same job: to run the landlocked province of Inner Mongolia, an economic backwater.
Bo, then commerce minister, was reluctant to go and told Hu he would have to ask his father first, one party insider told Reuters. Xi, then party boss of prosperous Zhejiang province in eastern China, said he was not familiar with the ethnic issues in Inner Mongolia but was willing to go.
“It was a test, but Bo used his father to pressure Hu,” the party insider said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics. “Xi was willing to accept whatever the party arranged.”
All along, Xi understood intuitively that “the higher the profile (of an up and coming official), the more difficult promotion will be”, even for a princeling, said Zhang, the political commentator.
In 2000, as governor of Fujian province in the southeast, Xi gave an interview in which he quoted an ancient Chinese military strategist:
“Do not try the impossible. Do not seek the unattainable … Do not do the irreversible. Taking up a new government post is a relay. Don’t drop the baton and run your leg well.”
Beyond the law in China
THE LEADERS of China talk about corruption as if it were merely a failure of party discipline. The new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, became the latest to suggest this in a speech delivered just after his rise to the top post on Nov. 17. “We must be vigilant,” Mr. Xi declared, warning that corruption threatens to corrode both the party and state.
He’s right about the threat. Corruption is rife in Chinese government, business and society, blossoming along with China’s remarkable economic growth. But Mr. Xi’s admonition will do nothing to stop corruption, and the reasons are not hard to find. China possesses a semblance of a legal system, with courts, lawyers and trials. But it has yet to create a genuine rule of law. The definition of rule of law is that no one — not even the party’s elite — is above the law. Yet in China today, the party stands beyond. It often uses the law to punish those who challenge its monopoly on power.
Two recent examples illuminate the party’s exalted position. The first was the downfall of Chongqing party chieftain Bo Xilai, a rising figure in the elite until it was revealed that his wife was involved in a murder scandal surrounding the death of a British businessman. Mr. Bo’s abuses shocked many Chinese when they were revealed, and served to underscore how the system works, enriching and protecting those in power. Mr. Bo lost his footing, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Mr. Xi seemed to acknowledge this in his speech, saying, “In recent years, there have been grave violations of disciplinary rules and laws within the party that have been extremely malign in nature and utterly destructive politically, shocking people to the core.”
The second example was the disclosure by the New York Times that relatives of Premier Wen Jiabao had amassed a multibillion-dollar fortune in businesses, despite Mr. Wen’s own speeches imploring family members of party officials not to exploit their connections.
In a real democracy, an unfettered free press can expose wrongdoing. While muckraking journalism can be found in China today, often it has been sanctioned by the authorities to manage popular anger over a scandal, such as milk contamination or factory pollution. There are red lines beyond which journalists cannot cross, and this includes holding the highest officials to account. When the story broke about Mr. Wen’s family fortunes, Chinese authorities promptly censored it on the Internet. It seems there is a limit to the slogan “We must be vigilant.”
It’s one thing to take a poor, faltering socialist experiment such as Mao’s China and transform it in a single generation into a mega-engine of capitalism. This much has been done, and with great gusto. But the lack of rule of law is a deep flaw that weakens the pillars of China’s progress. As long as this is the case, Mr. Xi’s warnings about corruption will echo in an empty hall.
More on this debate: David Shambaugh: Don’t expect reform from China’s new leaders David Ignatius: Foreign tests for Obama The Post’s View: Where will China’s new leaders take the country? The Post’s View: China’s Internet censors strike again.
Children of High Chinese Officials Turn Connections Into Riches
Many people have become rich under China’s developing economy. But none as fabulously wealthy as the “Princelings” — the children of high party officials.
With great ceremony, China’s ruling Communist Party Congress is meeting to choose the next generation of leaders.
Many of these men are the sons of former high party officials. They are called ‘princelings’ because they have achieved high political status largely due to their revolutionary lineage. As it is often the case, says magazine editor Hu Ping, many of them have also become very wealthy along the way.
“They have many ways to get immensely rich, for example, they can monopolize the market and get government procurement contracts. Hu Haifeng, Hu Jintao’s son, is a good example here. He was once the president for Nuctech. In the end of 2006, Nuctech won a government deal to supply airports throughout China with scanners to detect liquid explosives. In this way, they make a killing and it all looks legal. Inside trading is another way for them to get rich,” he said.
A recent New York Times report says family members of China’s leader Wen Jiabao have accumulated more than $2.7 billion during his tenure as premier. The wealth is hidden behind layers of investment vehicles in banking, insurance, precious stones, resorts and telecommunications.
Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hong Lei calls the report “libelous”. “Concerning the report smearing China’s reputation, it has ulterior motives,” the spokesman said.
Other members of the politburo standing committee also have family members with strong business ties.
Current Communist Party Chairman General Secretary Hu Jintao’s son-in-law was formerly the CFO of Sina.com, one of China’s largest web portals. Estimated wealth in 2003: between $35 million and $60 million.
Poltiburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun’s son is senior executive of China Mobile, a state-owned telecom giant.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg News reported that the sister and other relatives of future Chinese president Xi Jinping have more than $100 million of family wealth.
All this wealth comes despite the Party’s longtime proclamation that it represents the fundamental interests of the working class of China and premier Wen Jiabao’s vow to crack down on corruption.
“In regards to those corrupt members, it doesn’t matter what sector it happens in or who it involves, it doesn’t matter if they hold a high post, all must be severely punished under the law,” he said.
Bo Xilai, son of a party elder, was expected to become a member of the next politburo Standing Committee after the leadership change. But he was thrown out of the party on corruption charges, only after his wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman after a business dispute.