April 16, 2011


Princelings and the goon state: The rise and rise of the princelings, the country’s revolutionary aristocracy (The Economist, Apr 14th 2011)

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.

A kleptocracy, if you can keep it.

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Posted by at April 16, 2011 7:25 AM

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