Changing of the Red Guard

Until recently Xi Jinping was largely unknown outside China. For someone who will soon lead the world’s most populous country Xi’s status as an unknown quantity is extraordinary. Yet prominent or not, Xi will soon become an important figure in world politics. Trying to correct this deficit of knowledge commentators and observers have carefully scrutinised each public appearance by Xi, in particular his visit to the United States earlier this year.

Much attention has been given to Xi as a member of the “Princeling faction”: a group of up and coming Chinese leaders who can claim a family connection with the Communist Revolution. Xi himself is the son of former Communist Party elder Xi Zhongxun. Beyond Xi other senior figures in China have also been associated with the Princeling moniker, including the fallen leader Bo Xilai and General Liu Yuan of the People’s Liberation Army. But with this increased emphasis on the phenomenon of Princelings a closer and more critical examination is needed to ascertain if power in China is about to be captured by a new political grouping.

Perhaps the first reference to the Princelings in the context of the Chinese Communist Party in English came with the publication of Princes and Princesses of Red China(i) in 1993. The book, by Chinese émigré journalists Ho Pin and Xin Gao, consists of short vignettes from the lives of the children of leaders including Bo and Liu. These short biographies introduced many now prominent figures to the English reading world for the first time.

The essential premise of the book is that these figures constitute an emerging, single and cohesive leadership elite. This new elite, focused on preserving the rule of the Communist Party while securing their own economic interests, were prepared to act to protect their new status in a rapidly changing China. Since then the image of the Princelings as a rising and ambitious interest group has persisted and has strongly influenced conceptions of contemporary Chinese politics. But how true is the story of the Princelings?

When the personal experiences and political behaviour of individual Princelings are examined and compared it becomes clear that there is less in common between them than is assumed. It is difficult to believe that three figures such as Bo Xilai, Liu Yuan and Xi Jinping have substantial enough links to interact and act in unison. A cursory examination of their biographies reveals obvious differences. While it is true that each figure can claim a direct family link to the revolution and the foundation of the People’s Republic their experiences of those links are far from similar. Liu Yuan’s father, Liu Shaoqi, was President of the PRC until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. When the elder Liu was violently purged (he later died of medical neglect) his children were exiled from the capital to face suffering wherever they went. This experience has undoubtedly changed Liu’s political outlook. Liu, a commissar responsible for the General Logistics Department of the PLA, has been noted for his vociferous campaign against military corruption.

Both Bo and Xi’s fathers suffered similarly during the Cultural Revolution but they were eventually politically rehabilitated and restored to power. The experience of the younger Xi and Bo varied greatly from that of Liu; it is even rumoured that Bo enthusiastically engaged in the denouncement of his own father. Ordinarily, such considerations of personal experience are not entirely important in politics. But the premise of the Princelings rests on shared experiences in youth. There is not enough to suggest that any strong links were formed from similar experiences during that period.

Of course more recently members of the Princeling faction have expressed very different political views. Bo Xilai has fallen from power due to a scandal involving politics and corruption. Even at the height of his power Bo articulated a philosophy of development and culture that was rejected by the mainstream of Chinese politics. Liu Yuan’s campaign against corruption within the military has earned him attention, support and enemies. Xi Jinping has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of Chinese politics by supporting the elite consensus on China’s future. When Bo was removed from power earlier this year there was no evidence to suggest that either Liu or Xi acted to protect him. Rather, they stood by while he was dismissed and arrested.

Any analysis of Chinese politics needs to remain carefully cognisant of theories such as that of the Princelings. As a phenomenon of demography, the Princelings are more substantial. The success of certain figures in the field of politics is most likely due to their family connections. But they do not represent an organised political faction moving to deliberately dominate China’s government. Xi is not a representative of a faction of Princelings; he will be his own man.

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