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Most of China's Communist Party princelings aren't like Bo Xilai

The Bo Xilai saga of power, wealth, corruption, and murder has brought the issue of China’s princelings (offspring of Communist Party’s leaders) to the top of international discourse on China. But Bo's privileged rise is not the norm for the contemporary Communist Party.

By Eric X. Li / April 26, 2012

Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai attends a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11. Op-ed contributor Eric X. Li argues that unlike Mr. Bo, many of China's princelings 'live ordinary lives' and have 'excelled on merit' like presidential heir apparent Xi Jinping.

Andy Wong/AP/file

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Beijing

The Bo Xilai saga of power, wealth, corruption, and murder has brought the issue of China’s princelings (offspring of the Communist Party’s former and current senior leaders) to the front and center of the international discourse on contemporary China.

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Three underlying assumptions about the princelings drive the noisy speculations about Chinese politics by many mainstream commentators: The princelings form a powerful interest group, akin to a political aristocracy, that exerts decisive influence on China’s political system; their corruption is enormous and sapping away China’s national strength; and their privileges of birth are so vast that they are undermining the party’s legitimacy and destabilizing Chinese society as a whole.

Such assumptions are disconnected from reality and need to be debunked.

Many commentators, including some leading political analysts on China, are framing the princelings as if they are a powerful and unified political block, influencing policies in their favor and pushing for promotions of candidates who represent their interests. There is no empirical evidence to support such a conceptual framework.

If one takes a cursory look at the sons and daughters of China’s senior leaders, current and former, they appear to be living lives ranging from pinnacles of power or wealth to completely ordinary existence, and everywhere in between. Of the ones who have made it to the upper echelons of wealth or power, their economic interests are widely disparate and in some cases competitive to each other’s.

There is no indication that somehow they have coalesced to promote a coherent political agenda. In fact, the very few who have become vocal on politics are voicing very different and even opposite views. Princelings who are climbing the party’s political ladder engage in fierce competition among themselves no less intense than anyone else. 

No doubt the princelings are formidable players in both politics and business in part because of their connections. But they are nothing like the landed aristocracy of pre-industrial Europe or the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia. The former possessed enormous political, social, and military power amassed through centuries of accumulation; the latter came to control a vast portion of Russia’s entire economy.

Just as influence peddlers everywhere, many princelings trade on their connections and are corrupt. Some of them are even stupid enough to flaunt their unlawful or unethical gains by conspicuous displays of wealth. It is a near certainty that Mr. Bo’s case will not be the last, or even the biggest.

But many more princelings do live ordinary lives. Among the ones who are successful, many have indeed excelled on merit. Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping is a case in point. His father was a senior leader but was purged by Mao when Mr. Xi was still a child. The younger Xi paid a price for his father’s political downfall and began his career at the lowest level of government service in the villages.

The rehabilitation of his father came only after the younger Xi had moved up the ladder through apparently only hard work and merit. His track record since, from mayor to governor to provincial party secretary and now to the Politburo Standing Committee, has been by all accounts exemplary. 

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