China's princelings break their silence
October 17, 2011
Elite family ... Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, anointed as the next president.
Elite family ... Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, anointed as the next president. Photo: Reuters
WHEN Ma Xiaoli arrived this month at the Hall of Many Sages with the sister of China's likely next president, she had no intention of speaking what was on her mind. After all, the Chinese Communist Party usually does not permit disgruntled citizens to gather in large numbers and challenge the party line.
But as she heard other children of former leaders push back at what they saw as the party's moral decay, its attack on civil society and its revival of destructive Cultural Revolution politics, she found that when she started talking she could not stop.
''The Communist Party is like a surgeon who has cancer,'' Ms Ma told this almost unprecedented unofficial gathering of powerful families that took place in a conference room at the China World Trade Centre on October 6. ''It can't remove the tumour by itself, it needs help from others, but without help it can't survive for long.''
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Ms Ma was able to dispense with discretion because of her father's prestige as a leading revolutionary and because her family has long been intertwined with other elite families represented in that room, especially that of the anointed next president, Xi Jinping. The gathering was the starkest demonstration to date of how ''princelings'' are networking and rallying to influence personnel and ideology ahead of Mr Xi replacing Hu Jintao at the helm of the Communist Party at it's five-yearly congress a year from now.
Princelings are taking sides in the battleground of ideologies and interests but they are united, it seems, by a conviction that their party has lost its way.
''In today's China we are facing tremendous challenges that range from the rapid decline of moral standards, to poisonous and genetically modified food, to rampant official corruption,'' Ye Xiangzhen, daughter of Marshal Ye Jianying, who had emerged from the Cultural Revolution as the most important figure in the People's Liberation Army, said. The Ye family remains one of China's most powerful in both politics and business.
The event was ostensibly a private tribute to the leaders who had closed the door on the Cultural Revolution exactly 35 years before by arresting the widow of Chairman Mao Zedong and three other radical politburo members who were later labelled ''the gang of four''.
All the major figures of that momentous historical disjunction were represented by their children including the then party chief Hua Guofeng, Marshal Ye, Mao's chief bodyguard, Wang Dongxing, and Li Xiannian, who was later promoted to president. Also present that evening were children of the then head of China's intelligence network, the Navy and assorted vice-premiers, ministers and generals.
Marshal Ye's nephew, a powerful princeling in his own right called Ye Xuanji, hosted the event and highlighted the unsung achievements of Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng. Assisting him was Hu Deping, the eldest son of Hu Yaobang, who was the famously open-minded Communist Party boss who mentored a team of promising cadres in the 1980s, including the current president.
Hu Deping highlighted absurdities of contemporary Chinese politics including the fact that the phrase ''civil society'' has now been banned from mainstream media discourse.
''Their motive was that there are more and more people claiming they can use methods from the Cultural Revolution to solve the problems of contemporary China,'' Wu Si, editor of the party history magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, said.
''They felt they need another force to fight back and balance the voices,'' Mr Wu, who was at the gathering, said. ''But it went further than that: there were very strong voices calling for democracy and rule of law and bringing the party under supervision.''
Lu De, whose father Lu Dingyi had headed the propaganda department, told the gathering that party and government officials spend a third of all government revenue on their own luxury cars, travel, healthcare, banquets and other perks.
''And yet we still call it the Communist Party and socialism,'' he said.
Ma Xiaoli, whose father headed the party school and was the boss of Shaanxi province, said Mr Lu's comments had prompted her to break her silence. ''In the '80s when the party faced criticism we defended it and explained its actions,'' she said.
''In the '90s we sympathised with the critics but today we almost want to join them.''
She went as far as to hold up the example of Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo, who she said had transformed dictatorship into a prosperous democracy.
Ms Ma had arrived at the conference together with Mr Xi's elder sister, Xi Qianping. Her father, Ma Wenrui, had been a close ally of Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, since the 1940s.
Her father owed his job as head of the party school to Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang and she later worked with Mr Hu's son, Hu Deping, at the united front department.
Hu Yaobang's family, in turn, had helped shelter the Xi family after the Cultural Revolution, while Marshal Ye engineered Xi Zhongxun's appointment as party boss of Guangdong province and probably helped secure a career-building military post for his son Xi Jinping.
Rounding the circle, Ms Xi went to school with Marshal Ye's daughter Ye Xiangzhen. Clearly, Xi Jinping, currently vice-president, owes a great deal to the families of both Marshal Ye and Hu Yaobang, who are now taking a stand.