The princelings are coming
Next year’s changes in the leadership will bring on a new generation of privileged political heirs
Jun 23rd 2011 | from the print edition · ·
THE RUGGED REMOTENESS of Chongqing, a region in south-western China about the size of Austria, made it an ideal temporary home for the government during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s-40s. In the 1960s Mao Zedong moved strategic industries there to protect them from a feared Soviet invasion. Recently Chongqing has become a stronghold of something rarely seen in China since Mao’s day: charismatic politics. The region’s party chief, Bo Xilai, is campaigning for a place on the Politburo Standing Committee in next year’s leadership shuffle. He looks likely to succeed. Like every other Chinese politician since 1949, he avoids stating his ambitions openly, but his courting of the media and his attempts to woo the public leave no one in any doubt. Mr Bo’s upfront style is a radical departure from the backroom politicking that has long been the hallmark of Communist rule and would seem like a refreshing change, were it not that some of his supporters see him as the Vladimir Putin of China. Mr Bo is a populist with an iron fist. He has waged the biggest crackdown on mafia-style gangs in his country in recent years. He has also been trying to foster a mini-cult of Mao, perhaps in an effort to appeal to those who are disillusioned with China’s cut-throat capitalism. He does not appear to be aiming for the very top. Hu Jintao’s posts of president, party chief and military commander are almost certain to go to Xi Jinping, the vice-president, and Wen Jiabao’s job as prime minister is likely to be taken by Li Keqiang, his senior deputy. But Mr Bo could well be offered the portfolio of China’s internal security chief, currently held by Zhou Yongkang, with whom he is believed to have close ties. This would give him huge clout in the new line-up. Xinhua, a government-run news agency, in December named Chongqing as China’s "happiest” city, in a hint that Mr Bo is destined for great things. In the 1990s the princelings were viewed with great suspicion by many in the party, but recently party leaders appear to have rallied around them
Both Mr Bo and Mr Xi belong to an emerging political force in China commonly known as the taizidang, or "party of princelings”. These are the offspring of senior officials, including Mao’s old comrades-in-arms. Mr Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a hero of the epic Long March of the 1930s. Mr Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was also a Long Marcher. Both fathers held senior positions under Deng Xiaoping. In the 1990s the princelings were viewed with great suspicion by many in the party who resented their use of blood ties to secure top positions, but in more recent years party leaders appear to have rallied around them. They probably calculate that people like Mr Bo and Mr Xi are the safest bet for upholding the party’s traditions, and crucially for holding on to its monopoly of power. Mr Xi (who adores Hollywood movies about the second world war, according to a WikiLeaks cable) and the Jaguar-loving Mr Bo exude the sort of self-confidence that comes with a privileged upbringing. Like Western celebrities, they excite much tattle, albeit not in the party-controlled media. Mr Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is a glamorous folk-singing star in the People’s Liberation Army. A foreign businessman calls Mr Bo China’s "best-dressed person”. His son, Bo Guagua, is now studying at Harvard University after a stint at Oxford where his raffish behaviour, caught on camera, became an internet sensation in China (notwithstanding the censors’ best efforts). The new left Despite such diversions, Mr Bo is a darling of China’s "leftists”. These include diehard Maoists (who are a marginal force in Chinese politics, but still enjoy some appeal among retired officials and workers laid off from state-owned enterprises) as well as social democrats who want a fairer distribution of wealth. Many in this camp believe that China is far from enjoying the golden age now being proclaimed by some. The country is too divided between rich and poor to be experiencing a shengshi. Bo Xilai and Peng Liyuan add a touch of glamour to the world of Xi Jinping (centre) Mr Bo’s Maoist revival has included a campaign to encourage the singing of "red songs”, especially classics from the Mao era (one official newspaper cited Chongqing residents’ enthusiasm for this as one reason for its "happiest” award). Mr Bo himself has taken the stage with fellow officials to croon a few numbers, and has issued a list of 27 favourites (including "I Am a Soldier”, from the early days of Communist rule, and "China, China, the Bright Red Sun Will Never Set”, from 1977, the year after Mao’s death). In Chongqing, party cells in universities, schools, government offices and state-owned businesses organise red-song clubs and competitions. The Chongqing government has even been encouraging citizens to send "red instant messages” on their mobile phones. Mr Bo took the lead by sending one citing the Great Helmsman: "What really counts in the world is conscientiousness, and the Communist Party is most particular about being conscientious.” Tens of thousands of Chongqing officials are now required to spend a week every year living and working with a peasant family. Chinese leaders may shy away from claiming to have found a "China model”, but Chongqing’s leaders are not so bashful. Piled up in the foyer of the city’s main government-owned bookshop are volumes of a new work called "The Chongqing Model”. Written by three leftist scholars, it reads like a manifesto for Mr Bo. The authors say the anti-mafia campaign will help prevent a "colour revolution” of the kind experienced by numerous former communist states and by some Arab nations in recent years. They speak of the "original sin” of private entrepreneurs who got rich by shady means. The anti-mafia drive, they quote the city’s mayor, Huang Qifan, as saying, helped restore order to "an economy of scoundrels, an economy of rascals”. Mafia-controlled businesses, the writers say, employed 200,000 people. By stepping in and assuming "trusteeship”, the government ensured that none of them lost their jobs. Liberals in Beijing worry that Mr Bo’s campaign has shown little regard for legal process, much less the independence (however notional) of the judicial system. Police and judges have been instructed by party cadres whom to target and what punishments to mete out. A prominent defence lawyer hired by one alleged mafia boss was himself jailed for allegedly attempting to persuade his client to lie in court. Some independent lawyers in Beijing say Mr Bo’s real motive was to deter lawyers from acting for accused gangsters. Liberals fear that the crackdown on dissent in China in recent months will continue even after the princelings have taken power because the new leaders will be fearful of challenges to their authority. The authors of the "The Chongqing Model” would like to steer the economy onto a different path. They speak scornfully of Shenzhen, a freewheeling "special economic zone” bordering on Hong Kong beloved of China’s liberal economists. They prefer a bigger role for the state. Chongqing officials proudly note that the municipality, which ranked 19th among Chinese provinces by value of its state assets in 2003, has since moved up to number four, thanks to a more than sevenfold increase in their worth to 1.25 trillion yuan ($192 billion). But Mr Bo’s predilection for state-owned enterprises has a populist streak too. Whereas most such firms in China hand over little of their profit to the state, causing widespread resentment, officials claim that Chongqing’s state businesses have been supporting projects for the less well off. These include a huge one launched in 2010 to build 800,000 subsidised apartments within three years, at a cost of 120 billion yuan ($18.5 billion). This housing scheme has been widely praised in the national media. But as this special report will argue, if China’s state-owned enterprises enjoy a renaissance under China’s new leaders, it will be to the detriment of competition and increased consumption as a new driver of growth. Politically, their growing power (along with the salaries and benefits enjoyed by their employees) is likely to exacerbate social tensions, especially if China’s growth falters, forcing private companies to scale back. Mr Hu at least will be able to point to a legacy of his decade in power that makes many Chinese proud: double-digit annual growth and a much higher global profile. Mr Xi’s rule could be far more troubled.