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China's 'princelings' come of age

China's "princelings" - a term used to describe the children of former revolutionaries who have achieved power or wealth - are rising through the ranks of government.

China's vice president, Xi Jinping, is seen on a screen last month during the 11th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of China in Beijing.
China's vice president, Xi Jinping, is seen on a screen last month during the 11th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of China in Beijing.

BEIJING // If China's vice president, Xi Jinping, confirms predictions and takes over as chairman of the Communist Party next year before ascending to the presidency in 2013, it will represent more than a transition to the "fifth generation" of leadership since Mao Zedong's revolution in 1949.

Mr Xi will become the first of China's "princelings" - a term used to describe the male and female children of former revolutionaries who have achieved power or wealth - to claim the ultimate prize in Chinese politics.

The 53-year-old son of Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary during and after the time of Mao Zedong who was a vice-premier and a governor of Guangdong province, is one of many offspring of China's former and current leaders to have gained prominence in "the people's republic".

Other "princelings" have made fortunes in business or finance, winning lucrative government contracts, securing senior positions in major companies or using their unmatched insider connections or knowledge to aid foreign firms looking to access the Chinese market.

Among those sometimes highlighted is Wen Yunsong, also known as "Winston" Wen, a successful venture capitalist whose father is Wen Jiabao, China's premier.

In a country where public anger simmers over widespread corruption and alleged nepotism, the princelings have often been viewed with scepticism, especially when it comes to their business success.

"With lot of the state-owned enterprises … the high-level government officials cannot come out and buy the property themselves, so their sons and close relatives bought the property, like the factories and enterprises," said Chan Chepo, political science professor at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.

As a result, Prof Chan said the term "tai zi dang" which roughly translates as princeling has "very negative connotations" among the Chinese public.

Even so, he said top government posts did not automatically go to men and women with impressive family backgrounds. Prof Chan said the likes of Mr Xi have had to prove their worth, although he acknowledged that changing public perceptions was difficult.

There are many other princelings who have entered the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Seven of the 25 members of the central politburo are the children of former leaders, among them Bo Xilai, the head of the Communist Party in Chongqing, one of China's largest cities, and often seen as one of China's most charismatic officials.

The 61-year-old is the son of the late Bo Yibo, one of the "eight immortals" who ran China in the 1980s and 1990s. He is a likely candidate to next year enter the nine-member standing committee of the politburo, the country's most powerful body.

For the Bo family, power and influence, or at least high-profile status, is already passing to a third generation. Bo Xilai's son, Bo Guagua, 24, attended one of Britain's most prestigious private schools, Harrow, before studying at Oxford University. Mr Bo's undergraduate antics attracted a heavy online following thanks to the many photographs of him posted on the web.

Now at Harvard, he has been the focus of more attention thanks to his girlfriend, Chen Xiaodan, a fellow Harvard student who like the younger Mr Bo is the grandchild of one of the eight elders, as well as being the daughter of the chairman of China Development Bank. The pair have been described in British media as the closest thing China has to a royal couple.

Yet while Bo Xilai sent his son to an elite western school, the Chongqing official displays few signs of introducing the kind of liberal reforms many in the West would like to see in China.

He has waged an uncompromising war against corruption in the municipality that, while welcomed by many, also raised concerns over the treatment of defence lawyers.

Among those who fell victim to the take-no-prisoners purge of the corrupt was Wen Qiang, the 55-year-old former deputy police commissioner and later head of the justice bureau executed last year after being convicted of rape and taking bribes to shield gangsters.

More recently, Chongqing has been encouraging citizens to sing "red songs" that hark back to Mao's era, and to send Mao quotations as text messages.

According to reports from the city's media, local newspapers will publish a red song each day as the city prepares for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1.

In late 2010, the municipality said urban students would be sent to work in the countryside for a month, an echo of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Tu Jingping, the deputy secretary general of the municipality, has been quoted in reports as saying the measure would improve the young people's knowledge of society, while also helping them learn practical skills.

"Maybe this will give a good impression to the general public for a short period, but nobody truly believes that can really be helpful in solving problems," said Dr Chan.

Observers have pondered the effect Mr Bo's high-profile initiatives, and the activities of his son, will have on his chances of securing a place on the communist party's supreme body next year.

Reports have speculated that the photos of Bo Guagua's partying at Oxford may not be well thought of in China, potentially a source of harm to Bo Xilai's career. There has also been speculation that the promotion of red culture in Chongqing by Mr Bo is aimed at impressing party officials who will decide the make-up of the next standing committee of the politburo. Even so, the princelings as a whole remain a group that is difficult to categorise politically, said Ding Xueliang, a professor and political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"Among the children of the older generation leaders there have been many, many different ideologies and attitudes," he said.

"[Princelings] is just a popular term. But it does not have much to tell us. From my own personal contacts with members of the same family background they have displayed very important differences."

dbardsley@thenational.ae