Discos and diplomas lure China's elite

As "Didi" dances with a Day-Glo lime drink in her right hand, her left hand hits a speed-dial number on a palm-sized, chrome-plated Nokia cell phone. She begins mapping out the coordinates in Chinese for her next stop in New York's ultratrendy Soho district.

US dollars rush through Didi's hands like mercury: They seem to flash and disappear just as quickly as the nightclub's neon lights bounce off her tinsel-streaked Versace top and fade away. Didi (a pseudonym) says she "is killing time until classes start."

She attends an elite New York school, but she is unlike many of her compatriots here, who often work part-time jobs and endure spartan lifestyles to finance their education.

While the flashy lifestyle could mark her as one of China's nouveau riche, Didi is actually part of the taizidang, or "princeling faction," the new generation of the "red aristocracy" that has been China's ultra-elite since the 1949 Communist revolution.

When in Beijing, Didi lives in palatial Zhongnanhai, the section of the Imperial City that China's top leaders have occupied since seizing power a half century ago.

But more and more of these privileged Communist aristocrats, and their money, are turning up on American shores.

While most of the Communist Party's top leaders were once trained within China or the Soviet Union, many of their children are opting for an American education and often lavish lifestyles in the US, beyond the gaze of the Chinese proletariat.

More than half of the members of the Communist Party's all-powerful Standing Committee have sent their offspring to study or work in the US, says Gao Xin, an activist in exile in the US. For example, the son of party chief Jiang Zemin studied at Drexel University in Pennsylvania. Politburo members Li Ruihuan, Li Lanqing, and Wei Jianxing have similarly packed their children off to the US.

Pride of princelings

Some Chinese princelings have attempted to use their wealth and power to forge business or political connections with their American counterparts. "For a long time, the party leaders deposited their money in Hong Kong banks" when the enclave was still a British colony, Mr. Gao says. "But since the [1997] handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the US has become a prime destination of Communist Chinese capital." The son of Li Peng, the hard-line head of China's congress and the most fervent anti-American voice in the Chinese leadership, regularly travels to the US as a senior executive for a New York Stock Exchange-listed Chinese power firm, Gao says.

And at least two "princelings" have denied accusations of involvement in US Democratic Party campaign scandals. Wang Jun, the son of revolutionary elder Wang Zhen, managed to attend a White House meeting with President Clinton in February 1996 that included mostly political donors. Mr. Wang heads one of China's top investment companies and arms sales firms.

Liu Chaoying, the daughter of former Politburo member Gen Liu Huaqing, forged a business alliance with Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung. Ms. Liu, herself a People's Liberation Army officer and an executive at China Aerospace, like Mr. Wang, has disputed unproven charges that she tried to funnel Chinese funds into the Democrats' coffers.

The masses resent the elite

After two decades of exposing the country's state-controlled economy to market forces, the party leaders and their families who have entered the ranks of China's wealthiest are deeply resented by most Chinese, says Gao, co-author of the 1993 book "The Princes and Princesses of Red China." But "most princelings try to keep a low profile in the US and use pseudonyms to avoid being discovered," he says. During 1989's Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing and other Chinese cities, "the princelings were a prime target of public wrath, and since then they have tried to shield themselves from any publicity."

"One of the great failures of the revolution was the [Communist] Party's breaking its promise to the people to create an egalitarian society," says Wang Dan, a leader of China's 1989 democracy movement who now lives in exile in Cambridge, Mass. "The party now controls not only political, but also economic, power, and many senior Communist leaders or their children are among the richest in China."

Although two-thirds of Chinese students who reach US shores never return to their motherland, the princelings may be a special case. "The princelings are virtually automatically given a visa to the US," says a Western official based in Beijing. "The primary concerns in issuing a visa are economic and whether the applicant will return to China," he explains. "But money is no concern with the princelings, and all their political power and connections are in China."

Didi may love the Soho cafes, Greenwich Village jazz clubs, and fashion houses of Seventh Avenue, but she says with an air of disdain, "What is so great about America?" and vows she will never apply for permanent residence here.

Yet scholar Gao says even that statement, like Didi's assumed name, may be counterfeit. "The Chinese leaders send their families to the US as an insurance policy, and many princelings have applied for green cards or US citizenship," he says.

"If China remains communist, then the princelings can return to high-level government or business positions," Gao says. "But if the party is eventually toppled, the princelings not only will have sanctuary here, but could also sponsor their parents to emigrate to the US."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.