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In China, 'red nobility' trumps egalitarian ideals

Relatives of communist China's founding fathers enjoy privileged status in politics and business that runs counter to party ideology.

March 04, 2013|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, right, and President Hu Jintao applaud at a Beijing conference. Xi will become president at this week's National People's Congress.
Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, right, and President Hu Jintao… (Andy Wong, Associated Press )

BEIJING — One man is completing his ascent to the pinnacle of power. The other is in the midst of a searing public humiliation.

Xi Jinping, China's new Communist Party secretary, will add the title of president at the end of the annual gathering of the National People's Congress, which opens Tuesday. The corruption trial of his purged rival, Bo Xilai, is expected shortly after.

Even as their fates have diverged sharply, the stories of their famous and powerful families have dominated Chinese political chatter for the last year. They have focused scrutiny on the country's "princelings," the sons and daughters of party or government officials, fostering a potent form of resentment in Chinese society.

Including Xi, six of the seven men tapped in November for the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ruling body in the Communist Party and thus China, are the sons of such officials.

The phenomenon is not confined to China. The close relatives of past leaders have risen to the top in Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Singapore and both Koreas. But the phenomenon is more jarring in a communist country, where equal opportunity is the bedrock of the ruling ideology.

The fact that there are no free elections leaves the party elders vulnerable to accusations that they have merely perpetuated China's dynastic traditions by handing down power within a "red nobility." The privileges of birth extend to every sector of the economy, be it oil, electric power, insurance or even diamonds.

"It isn't so much corruption as a system of official privilege," said Ding Xueliang, a professor of sociology at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Originally from the mainland, Ding recalls that when he worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought, many of his colleagues were children of officials who either changed their names or kept quiet about their connections. "After several months, you would learn, oh, her father was X, Y or Z."

The ascent of the princelings belies claims popular in some intellectual circles that China is a meritocracy in which talented people can be plucked from obscurity through a tradition of standardized exams dating back to Confucian times.

"Maybe a kid from a humble family can succeed based on his hard work and intelligence, but the official's kid is always going to have a much higher starting point," said Eric Yuan, a 33-year-old Communist Party member from Nanjing, who microblogs under the pen name "Screw the Second-Generation Rich."

The term diaosi, literally "hanging threads," has emerged on the Chinese Internet in reference to refer to young men and women without family connections trying to find jobs.

Several studies show China scoring poorly on what World Bank economist Francisco Ferreira calls the "inequality of opportunity index." Dou Xiaohong, a researcher at the Communist Party School in Hunan province, last year studied 403 college graduates and found their parents' background was the main determining factor in career success.

Princelings can always count on preferential admission to universities, tuition breaks and gifts or loans of cars, said a well-connected political scientist who is himself from an elite family and an old friend of Xi Jinping's.

"People will just give them things. They want to cultivate them while they are young. It's the best investment for the future," said the professor. "It is not necessarily their fault or the fault of their parents. This is Chinese society."

Xi, 59, and Bo, 63, are both members of the "red nobility." Their fathers were early followers of Mao and both later climbed the leadership ranks, each serving as vice premiers under Premier Chou En-lai.

At a time when other Chinese were starving, Xi lived in the vermilion-walled leadership compound in Beijing with a driver, servants and a special food supply. Like other elite youth, he was exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, an experience that party propagandists emphasize to cultivate an up-by-the-bootstraps myth.

But he gained admission to Tsinghua University with a party recommendation; after graduation, his father secured him a job as an aide to the powerful head of the Central Military Commission.

Bo Xilai also went from riches to rags and back to riches. A teenager at the start of the Cultural Revolution, he was briefly a member of the Red Guards before being packed off to a prison populated largely by offspring of officials. Later, he was admitted to Peking University, a school equal in prestige to Tsinghua, and then secured a plum post as a researcher in the Communist Party Central Committee's secretariat.

Their fathers were sometimes colleagues — and sometimes rivals.

The two men clashed most memorably when Xi's father allied himself with the liberal party secretary, Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 touched off the student protests at Tiananmen Square.

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