China's new leaders can't rule by pedigree

Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party, takes power along with others as descendants of Mao's revolutionary elite. But China needs rulers open to change, not those who cling to hereditary privilege.

AP Photo
From left, members of China's new Politburo Standing Committee: Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Thursday.

The most striking fact about China’s new crop of rulers is how many are so-called princelings. Of the seven men selected for the Communist Party’s all-powerful Standing Committee this week, four are descendents of former senior party leaders.

This is startling for a Marxist regime that once denounced hereditary rule, or a belief that bloodlines help determine one’s destiny or that the right genes make a righteous ruler.

China is not alone in caving to the notion that heredity can still play a big role in determining a country’s elite.

Europe still has its monarchs, albeit now largely figureheads. Americans still vote for political dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Gore, Romney, Kennedy). India is dominated by the Gandhi family, Cuba by the Castros, Singapore by the Lees, North Korea by a third-generation Kim, and Syria by a second-generation Assad. The Arab monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, may be the most successful in self-perpetuating their power, even when up against the Arab Spring.

China’s “red nobility” stands out, however, because of the country’s sheer size and the need for economic and political reform. These new Chinese leaders, who see themselves as the hereditary heirs to the 1949 communist revolution, may have little stake in change. They literally still live in a walled world. And many of their families control a large chunk of the economy.

As communist ideology has declined in popularity, the party has fallen back on old traditions to maintain power, such as nationalism and the promise of quick wealth. With a new leadership under Xi Jinping (son of a former vice premier who was a protégé of Mao Zedong), the party has reached for legitimacy by claiming that the grandsons of the Mao generation deserve to be treated as quasi-royalty. Mr. Xi himself reportedly once described top officials without a strong background to the Mao generation as “shopkeepers’ sons.”

World history, however, is moving in the opposite direction, toward a less artificial view of individual worth. Rulers must rise by the merit of their qualities – qualities learned and not passed down simply by bloodlines of family, clan, or tribe. “Power is never a good, unless he be good that has it,” said King Alfred the Great.

In the 2011 book “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution,” famed scholar Francis Fukuyama states about ethnic nepotism:

“Since virtually all human societies organized themselves tribally at one point, many people are tempted to believe that this is somehow a natural state of affairs or biologically driven. It is not obvious, however, why you should want to cooperate with a cousin four times removed rather than a familiar nonrelative just because you share one sixty-fourth of your genes with your cousin.”

China’s emerging form of hereditary privilege and nepotistic rule may provide the country some stability. People often prefer a known name to an unknown one. But it borders on personality cult and defies a global trend toward higher views of humanity, such as equality and rule of law.

Perhaps social changes in China, driven by the Internet and a rising middle class, will push Beijing’s new elite rulers to see that history is not on the side of those who claim power by pedigree.

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