The rise and rise of the princelings, the country’s revolutionary aristocracy

Economist: The rise and rise of the princelings, the country’s revolutionary aristocracy


“THERE are some sour and smelly literati these days who are utterly abominable,” a retired military officer reportedly told a recent gathering in Beijing. “They attack Chairman Mao and practise de-Maoification. We must fight to repel this reactionary counter-current.” At the time, two months ago, the colonel’s crusty words might have had the whiff of a bygone era. Today, amid a heavy crackdown on dissent, they sound cruelly prescient.

One of the most prominent literati, Ai Weiwei, is among dozens of activists the security forces have rounded up recently. Mr Ai, an artist who is famous abroad, was detained in Beijing as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong on April 3rd. There has been no official confirmation since of his whereabouts. Officials say that he is being investigated for unspecified economic crimes, but the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, warned that Mr Ai had been skirting close to the “red line” of the law with his “maverick” behaviour. In other words, he had apparently provoked the Communist Party once too often.

Since the late 1970s, when China began to turn its back on Maoist totalitarianism, the country has gone through several cycles of relative tolerance of dissent, followed by periods of repression. But the latest backlash, which was first felt late last year and intensified in late February, has raised eyebrows. It has involved more systematic police harassment of foreign journalists than at any time since the early 1990s. More ominously, activists such as Mr Ai have often simply disappeared rather than being formally arrested.

It is an abnormally heavy-handed approach, one unprompted by any mass disturbances (recent anonymous calls on the internet for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” hardly count). This suggests that shifting forces within the Chinese leadership could well be playing a part. China is entering a period of heightened political uncertainty as it prepares for changes in many top positions in the Communist Party, government and army, beginning late next year. This is the first transfer of power after a decade of rapid social change. Within the state, new interest groups have emerged. These are now struggling to set the agenda for China’s new rulers.Particularly conspicuous are the “princelings”. The term refers to the offspring of China’s revolutionary founders and other high-ranking officials. Vice-President Xi Jinping, who looks set to take over as party chief next year and president in 2013, is one of them. Little is known about his policy preferences. Some princelings have been big beneficiaries of China’s economic reforms, using their political connections and Western education to build lucrative business careers. Other princelings are critical of China’s Dickensian capitalism and call for a return to socialist rectitude. Some straddle both camps. Prominent princelings in business include President Hu Jintao’s son, Hu Haifeng, who headed a big provider of airport scanners; and Wen Yunsong, a financier who is the son of Wen Jiabao, the prime minister.

Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, argues that a shared need to protect their interests binds these princelings together, especially at a time of growing public resentment against nepotism. Since a Politburo reshuffle in 2007, princelings have occupied seven out of 25 seats, up from three in 2002.

The Mao-loving ex-colonel was talking to a group called the Beijing Friendship Association of the Sons and Daughters of Yan’an (where Mao Zedong was based before his takeover of China in 1949). No prizes for guessing that the group favours socialist rectitude. Its president is Hu Muying, a daughter of Mao’s secretary, Hu Qiaomu. Mr Hu was a Politburo hardliner in the 1980s who died in 1992. Other princelings are association members, though it is unclear how many are current or expected holders of high office. In her speech to the gathering Ms Hu said she rejected the word “princelings”, but declared: “We are the red descendants, the descendants of the revolution. So we have no choice but to be concerned about the fate of our party, state and people. We cannot turn our backs on the crisis the party faces.”

The crisis, as her sort see it, is rampant corruption, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a collapse of faith in communist ideology. Details of Ms Hu’s speech and the former colonel’s were posted on several websites controlled by China’s remaining Maoist hardliners. Journals put out by the hardliners were forced to close a decade ago because they were too blunt in their criticism of China’s economic reforms. Yet the websites have kept up their tirades, including fierce denunciations of Ai Weiwei and other liberal intellectuals long before the recent arrests.

The Maoists’ lingering influence has been evident for the past couple of years in the south-western (and Scotland-sized) municipality of Chongqing. There, one of the country’s most powerful princelings, Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s party secretary, has been waging a remarkable campaign to revive Maoist culture. It includes getting people to sing Mao-era “red songs” and sending text messages with reams of Mao quotations. A local television channel has even started airing “revolutionary programming” at prime time. Last year Chongqing’s fawning media ascribed a woman’s recovery from severe depression to her singing Mao-vintage songs.

The campaign has drawn plenty of attention. Mr Bo is a Politburo member who is thought to be a strong contender for elevation next year to its standing committee, the party’s supreme body. He has become a darling of the Maoists (their websites say that the same colonel singled out Mr Bo for praise, to applause from the audience). For a long time it had been thought that Mr Bo and Mr Xi did not get on. But in December Mr Xi visited Chongqing and said its red revival had “deeply entered people’s hearts”. It deserved all its praise.

Few people—certainly not Mr Bo or other contenders for power—are calling for a return to Maoist despotism and an end to market economics. What worries many liberals, however, is that they share Mao’s high-handed approach to the law. In Chongqing a sweeping campaign against the city’s mafia-like gangs and their official protectors has won Mr Bo many plaudits in the state-controlled press. But the jailing of a defence lawyer for one of the mobsters, for allegedly trying to persuade the accused to give false testimony, has led many to worry that Chongqing’s courts will do anything to prevent lawyers from challenging the prosecution. He Weifang, a prominent legal expert at Peking University, wrote this week that recent events in Chongqing “threatened the basic principles of a society under the rule of law”.

The manner of the recent crackdown could be a sign that Mr Bo’s approach (which includes dollops of spending on housing for the poor) is gaining favour in Beijing. It is also a sign of the increased influence of the domestic security apparatus since 2008, when China pulled out all the stops to stop unrest marring the Olympic games in Beijing. The power of Zhou Yongkang, the member of the Politburo’s standing committee in charge of security, is widely thought to have grown along with a rapid increase in government spending on his portfolio.

More liberal thinking has not been entirely suppressed. The party chief of Guangdong province in the south, Wang Yang, who is another (non-princeling) contender for the Politburo’s standing committee, is widely seen as a bit more open-minded. Shenzhen, a special economic zone in Guangdong, has been experimenting in giving a freer rein to NGOs. The province’s newspapers are among the country’s most spirited (for which they are bitterly attacked by leftist websites). But Mr Wang has a cautious streak, too. The official media reported this week that 80,000 “potentially unstable people” had been evicted from Shenzhen in preparation for a sporting event this summer.

One of the most powerful criticisms of the clampdown came on April 8th from Mao Yushi, a notable economist. In a blog posting at Caixin Media, an outspoken publishing group, Mr Mao accused leaders of making a mistake by neglecting political reform in their plans for China’s development in the next five years. Spending ever greater sums on maintaining stability, he said, just made citizens more hostile. Determined not to allow any disruption to next year’s high politics, Chinese leaders are willing to take that risk.



据报道,一名退休军官最近在北京的一次集会上这样说道:“有些酸臭的知识分子非常可恶。他们攻击毛主席,提倡‘去毛化’,我们必须努力击退这种反动逆 流。”在两个月以前,这位退役上校的强硬言辞兴许带着一些逝去时代的味道。而在今天,一场针对异议人士的沉重打压,让他说的话听起来带着残酷的预见性。

艾 未未是最近被国家安全机构逮捕的数十人中最著名的知识分子。艾先生是一位蜚声国际的艺术家,4月3号在北京机场准备登上前往香港的航班时被捕。现在还没有 关于他下落的官方确认。官员声称,他是因为涉嫌“不明的经济犯罪”被逮捕调查,但是《环球时报》(一份北京的报纸)警告说,艾未未先生常常用他桀骜不驯的 行为挑战法律的“红线”,换句话说,很明显的,他过于频繁地挑衅共产党。

自从20世纪70年代末开始,中国从毛泽东极权主义扭转过来之 后,中国经历了数个从对异议的相对宽容时期到随之而来一段压制言论自由时期的周期。但是最新的这次反弹,始于去年年底并且在今年二月末期加剧,势头更加猛 烈。它包括了警察对国外记者的系统性的骚扰,其频率超过了自1990年代初以来的任何时候。更加不祥的是,像艾未未这样的异议活动人士更经常的是突然地消 失而不是正式地逮捕。

这是一次异常严厉的行动,并非针对任何具体的群体性事件(最近在互联网上发出匿名号召的中国“茉莉花”革命不能算 数)。这表明了中国领导层的内部权力转移很可能在此事中扮演了一定角色。因为中国准备明年年末的大规模党,政,军高层的换届(译者注:十二大),正在进入 一个政治不确定性加剧的时期。这是十年的剧烈社会变化以来的第一次权力转移。而在国家内部,新的利益集团已经出现。他们正在竭尽全力地为中国的新统治者设 立新的待办事项。

其中尤为突出的是“太子党“。这个词指的是中国的革命创始人和一些高级官员的后代。现任国家副主席、被安排在明年将成为 党和国家领导人的习近平就是其中一员。而对于他的政策偏好外界知之甚少。一些“太子党”成为中国经济改革的最大受益者,他们利用自己的政治影响力和西方教 育背景经营着利益丰厚的商业生涯。其他的“太子党”对中国“狄更斯式的资本主义”(译者注:“狄更斯式的资本主义”常常用来形容中国三十年来的污染严重, 贫富分化剧烈的发展过程,如同狄更斯描写当时英国的资本主义)持批判态度并且呼吁回到传统的社会主义公平与正义。也有一些太子党成功的横跨这两个阵营。 “太子党”在商业领域中的佼佼者包括国家主席胡锦涛之子胡海峰,他掌管着生产机场扫描仪的一家大型供应商。还有国家总理温家宝之子温云松,他是一位金融 家。

华盛顿特区布鲁金斯研究所的Cheng Li认为,保障自身利益的共同需求将这些“太子党”绑在了一起,尤其在当前公众对裙带关系的愤恨程度在不断增长的背景之下。2007年的政治局换届,太子党占据了25席中的7席,而在2003年,他们只占据了3席。

那 位喜爱毛泽东思想的前上校,是对一个名叫“延安子女北京联谊会”的组织讲出那番话的(延安是毛泽东在1949年夺得全国政权之前的根据地)。不难猜出,这 个组织热衷于社会主义的正义。其主席叫胡木英,是毛泽东的秘书胡乔木之女。胡乔木曾是1980年代政治局的强硬派,死于1992年。其他的“太子党”也是 协会成员,但是现在还不清楚有多少现任或未来的高层领导人。在她的集会演讲中,胡女士拒绝承认“太子党”这个词,反而宣称:“我们是红色后代,革命后代。 因此,我们除了关注我们党,国家,人民的命运以外别无选择。我们不能在党面临危机的时候置之不理。”

在她看来,腐败的猖獗,贫富差距的日 益扩大,以及共产主义理念的崩溃构成了一场危机。胡女士和那位退役上校的演讲的详细内容,发布在由中国残存的毛泽东思想强硬派所控制的一些网站上。而这些 人创办的杂志在十年前被当局强制关闭,原因是他们对中国经济改革的犀利批评。然而,早在逮捕开始很久以前,这些网站就持续以长篇大论激烈地谴责、攻击艾未 未和其他的自由主义知识分子。

毛泽东主义者挥之不去的影响,近几年在中国西南部的重庆市(面积和苏格兰相近)表现得最为明显。在这里,中 国最有实力的太子党之一、重庆市党委书记薄熙来发动了影响巨大的运动,以恢复毛泽东时代的文化。它包括了让公众“唱红歌”,发送毛泽东语录的短信。一个当 地电视台更是开始在黄金时间播放“革命节目”。去年,重庆市可怜的媒体把一名女士从严重抑郁症中康复归结于她的唱红歌行为。

这些活动引起 了广泛的重视。薄先生是政治局委员并且被认为在明年的换届中是晋升为政治局常委的强力竞争者,政治局常委会是党的最高机构。他成为了毛派最喜爱的人(他们 的网站说,那位上校对薄熙来提出点名表扬,听众们也鼓掌赞同)。在很长的时间里,薄熙来和习近平被认为不合。然而在12月,习先生视察了重庆并说红色文化 复苏已经“深入人心”。它获得的赞誉名副其实。

几乎没人——包括薄熙来先生和其他的权力竞争者——呼吁回归毛时代的独裁,并且结束市场经 济。但让很多自由主义者担心的是,这些人认同毛泽东对法律的高压干涉。在重庆对其黑手党似的黑帮以及他们的官方保护势力进行的清扫活动中,薄熙来赢得了来 自国家控制的新闻媒体的很多喝彩。但一名黑帮成员的辩护律师因涉嫌试图说服被告提供伪证而被逮捕,让很多人们担忧引重庆的法庭会不惜一切措施来防止律师对 公诉人提出质疑。北京大学著名法律专家贺卫方,本周撰文说最近在重庆发生的事情“威胁到一个法制社会的基本原则”

近期对于异议者的打压方 式可能是一个迹象,说明薄熙来的手段(包括大量的投资改善穷人的居住条件)得到了北京的青睐。这也是国内安全机构自2008以来影响力与日俱增的一个表现 ——当时中国尽全力防止任何影响到北京奥运会的社会动荡。很多人认为,随着他所掌管的部门得到了政府大幅度的投入,负责安全方面的政治局常委周永康的权力 也在逐渐增加。

更加自由的思考却没有被完全抑制。中国南部的广东省党委书记汪洋,是政治局常委(非太子党)的另一位有力竞争者,被广泛认 为是有着更加开放的态度。深圳是广东的一个特别经济区,它已经试着给予非政府组织更加自由的发挥空间。广东省的报纸媒体是这个国家里最有良知的媒体(这也 是他们被左派网站激烈攻击的原因)。但汪洋也在谨慎地处事。官方媒体本周报道,八万名“潜在的不稳定的人“已被逐出深圳,为这里在今年夏天的体育赛事做准 备。

对这种趋势最有力的批评来自茅于轼,一位著名的经济学家。他在四月八号在财新网站(一家直言不讳的出版集团)上发表了一篇博客。茅于 轼先生指责中国领导人在下一个五年计划中错误的忽略了政治改革。他说,花费更巨大的预算在维稳上,只会让公众对政府更加敌视。然而,由于决心不允许任何因 素干扰明年的高层政治会议,中国领导人愿意为此承担这份风险。