When Mr Xi came to power in 2012, many observers described it as a symbol of the rise of “princelings”, a term often applied to descendants of the most senior revolutionaries who fought with Mao, as well as the offspring (and their spouses) of those who served as senior officials in Beijing after the Communists came to power in 1949. Mr Xi became one of four members of the party’s most powerful body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, who could be described as princelings. Never had it been so stacked with them.

At the highest levels of politics, things look very different today. After a reshuffle in 2022, Mr Xi became the only princeling in the Standing Committee. He appears not to want to share power with others whose pedigrees could challenge his own.

But princelings might yet determine China’s future. They still permeate the management of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and financial firms, as well as the armed forces’ officer class. In these institutions, family connections matter. Power is transmitted through formal mechanisms, yet its origins are often hazier, involving networks tied to bloodlines. This has big implications. When Mr Xi leaves the political scene, red families will have the wealth, prestige and military ties that could enable them to shape what comes after. The next ruler may not be a princeling, but the clans may be kingmakers.

To understand all this, one must look at the way politics evolved following Mao’s death in 1976. After Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in the late 1970s, many princelings went into business. Having experienced the vicious politics of the Mao era, they saw this as a safer option. But Deng and his colleagues wanted to keep the party in the hands of people like themselves, so they picked a few of their offspring to groom as potential leaders. Mr Xi was one of them. He began a long and unremarkable career in the provinces.

When the opportunity eventually came for a handover of power to princelings, Mr Xi faced little competition from others of his pedigree. The most notable exception was Bo Xilai, the suave and charismatic party chief of the south-western region of Chongqing. Mr Bo is the son of Bo Yibo, one of several revolutionary veterans who, along with Deng, wielded enormous influence from the late 1970s and whose clans today are foremost among the red families. (Most, including Deng, had died by the late 1990s, though Mr Xi’s father lived until 2002 and Mr Bo’s until 2007.) In Chongqing Mr Bo deviated from the low-profile norm of provincial leaders by waging a sweeping campaign against corruption and whipping up nostalgia for the egalitarian Mao years. His populist style attracted many supporters.

But Mr Bo’s political ambitions were scuppered by the flight of his police chief to an American consulate, where he revealed that Mr Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman. Mr Bo was arrested a few months before Mr Xi took over. Mr Xi eventually had him jailed for life for bribe-taking and other misdeeds. He later accused Mr Bo of planning to “seize power”. Mr Bo is now thought to be in Qincheng prison on Beijing’s northern outskirts, the usual place of incarceration for casualties of high-level struggles. He enjoys special treatment there. According to the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Hong Kong, he is allowed to wear a Western suit.

To consolidate his power, Mr Xi leant heavily on one of his fellow princelings on the Standing Committee: Wang Qishan, the son-in-law of Yao Yilin (Yao was on the Standing Committee during Deng’s rule). On Mr Xi’s behalf, Mr Wang masterminded a war on corruption that toppled hundreds of senior officials and military commanders, thereby crushing any potential opposition to the new ruler.

Mr Wang stepped down from the Standing Committee in 2017, but the purges continue. One of those felled last year was a red aristocrat: General Li Shangfu was sacked as defence minister a few months after taking up the job. General Li’s father was a revolutionary who became a high-ranking officer under Mao. His alleged offences have not been revealed.

Stick to business

For now, General Li remains on the Central Committee, a body comprising about 370 members of the party elite, from ministers and provincial leaders to SOE bosses and military brass. But he is likely to be booted out when it next meets, probably this year. That would leave only nine members of the group who are princelings, reckons Cheng Li of the University of Hong Kong. When Mr Xi became the party’s boss the Central Committee had 41 of them (see chart).

Graphic: The Economist

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Graphic: The Economist

In business it is a different story. In the build-up to Mr Xi’s accession, Western media uncovered sensational details of the riches accumulated by family members of some of China’s most powerful people. Investigations by the New York Times revealed that relatives of current and former senior officials had “amassed vast wealth, often playing central roles in businesses closely entwined with the state, including those involved in finance, energy, domestic security, telecommunications and entertainment”. Bloomberg, an American news service, focused on Mr Xi’s relatives, linking them to hundreds of millions of dollars in assets (it said none was traced to Mr Xi, adding that it had found no indication of any wrongdoing by Mr Xi or his family).

Officials reacted furiously to the reports. They retaliated by blocking visa applications from these news organisations. In 2019 the Chinese foreign ministry refused to renew the press credentials of a Singaporean reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong, forcing him to leave the country. Mr Wong had written about an organised-crime investigation by Australia’s authorities that touched on the activities of a businessman who is a cousin of Mr Xi and has become a naturalised Australian citizen. (The article said there was no evidence that Mr Xi knew about the man’s business and gambling affairs.) According to the paper, ministry officials urged it not to publish the article, warning of unspecified consequences.

In 2014 the New York Times reported that Mr Xi had been pushing family members to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. They included stakes in mining and property firms held by his sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, and brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui. But Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has had little impact on the dealings of political families, says Desmond Shum, a Chinese businessman who moved to Britain in 2015. “Maybe it’s more subtle than it used to be. It’s not so in-your-face,” he says. But he calls cashing in on the family name “a baked-in feature” of princeling life.

Mr Shum is rare as someone who is both a close-up witness of how these dealings work and who is willing to talk openly about them. He is the ex-husband of Whitney Duan, also known as Duan Weihong, who became a close friend of Zhang Beili, a businesswoman and jewellery expert who is the wife of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister. Mr Shum and Ms Duan helped to arrange some of Ms Zhang’s deals. (In an exposé of this, “Red Roulette”, published in 2021, Mr Shum wrote that they had always been careful “to stay within the boundaries of the law”.)

Few princelings have been arrested in the anti-corruption drive. Mr Shum says one reason is Mr Xi’s feeling of kinship with them: “It’s a web,” he says. “They are people who worked with your father, they are the children of your father’s colleagues, your father’s underlings. They grew up with you.” For Mr Xi to send princelings to prison, other than those who pose a political threat, would “almost go against his upbringing”, Mr Shum believes. Mr Xi’s rise “was really with the support of that group”.

Mr Xi has made it much harder to trace the princelings’ business connections. As Shanghai correspondent of the New York Times between 2004 and 2015, David Barboza played a big role in exposing these networks. He later co-founded The Wire Digital, a China-focused news and data platform based in New York. Mr Barboza doesn’t think any journalist could obtain the kind of detailed company records that he could get access to when working in China, with owners’ signatures, addresses, ID-card details and phone numbers. These records were on paper, and the authorities have clamped down on access to them. “Even companies have a hard time getting the paper records,” Mr Barboza says.

Details of Chinese company ownership are still available from online databases (Mr Barboza’s firm maintains one, called WireScreen, that flags people known to be politically connected). But those provided by Chinese firms contain far fewer of the clues that Mr Barboza was able to glean from the records he used. He believes that the princelings are still doing big deals, however. “I don’t think it’s changed dramatically, except in this sense: everyone is afraid of Xi Jinping. And people are either trying to figure out how to hide their money better, or move it offshore.”

Comrades up in arms

Mr Xi does not reject the idea that bloodlines matter. Far from it. He has dedicated his rule to revitalising the party and reviving its “revolutionary spirit”. This has involved playing up the heroism and idealism of its founding fathers. At the party’s celebrations in 2019 of 70 years of Communist rule, some of their descendants joined a massive parade through Tiananmen Square, sitting on open-top buses painted red and gold, waving portraits of their powerful ancestors (see picture). Prominent among them was Mao’s grandson, Major General Mao Xinyu.

But Mr Xi’s high-handed ways have angered at least some of the princelings who once backed him. Joseph Torigian, who is writing a book about Mr Xi’s father, believes that many princelings are extremely dissatisfied with him. “They think that he has just completely shut them out,” he says. Olivia Cheung of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London believes Mr Xi is mindful that the collapse of authoritarian regimes is often caused by fighting within the elite, rather than public protests. “I think Xi Jinping is quite alert to that. So keeping the princelings under control has to be a political priority.”

To Mr Xi, it clearly is. The sentencing of Mr Bo was a dramatic example. But Mr Xi has also tried to stifle more liberal types. Such princelings were among backers of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal that explored the dark side of the Mao era and suggested greater political freedom. Its deputy publisher was Hu Dehua (pictured, right), a son of the former party chief, Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 triggered nationwide pro-democracy upheaval. At closed-door meetings organised by the publication, the princelings aired their views on the need for political reform—until officials purged the journal’s leadership in 2016 (including Mr Hu) and replaced it with a new team in tune with Mr Xi’s thinking.

Among the few to have defied Mr Xi openly is the retired chairman of a state-owned property company, Ren Zhiqiang (pictured, left). Mr Ren is the son of Ren Quansheng, who served under Mao. In 2020 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption and abuse of power. The real, unstated, reason was his tirades against Mr Xi. He was detained after calling him “a clown with no clothes on who is still determined to play emperor”.

Other princelings support Mr Xi’s efforts to stiffen the party’s sinews, but they point to Mao’s days as a time when China was supposedly fairer and more in tune with the needs of the working class (they are denialists of Maoist horrors). A clutch of neo-Maoist websites fawningly report on the activities of princelings sympathetic to their cause, such as their staging of events last year to mark the 130th anniversary of Mao’s birth. Attendees included several of his descendants (among the political clans, Mao’s is relatively marginal).

Just because Mr Xi has sidelined them, it would be a mistake to declare that princelings have no political future. There are three good reasons for keeping an eye on them. First, revolutionary families have been important since the beginning of Communist rule. Mao and Deng were both giants of the revolutionary era. Deng’s immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were not, but they were selected by him. Mr Xi’s rule is seen by princelings as a resumption of the norm: rule by the red aristocracy after years of caretaker administration. If Mr Xi steps down, his successor is likely to be a puppet. When he dies, the aristocracy will expect a say in designing China’s next political phase.

The second reason is that clans, unlike individual rivals, are impossible to wipe out. The princelings may have been pushed aside by Mr Xi, but their wealth gives them much potential influence.

To be sure, each new generation sees the world differently from their elders: the hongsandai, or third-generation reds, include some whose embrace of Western lifestyles would appal their ancestors. Check the Instagram account of @baobaowan. Its owner is a grand-daughter of the late Wan Li, a veteran of the revolution. “Delighted to receive the first Aston Martin DBX in China, in the very unique satin solar bronze color that I always loved,” went a post in 2020. But Victor Shih of the University of California, San Diego, believes these families’ views may still affect the outcome of a succession struggle. “They can play a very pivotal role,” he says.

The third reason why princelings may prove important is simply their numbers. The system is “infested” with them, says Mr Shum. When succession looms, party structures will be involved in deciding the outcome. But, if the past is a guide, the new line-up will be decided by a broader swathe of the elite, with retired officials, especially those of good revolutionary genes, having a say. To protect their interests, these ex-leaders may feel safer with someone of their own blood in charge.

Indeed, that was the case in 2012, when they preferred Mr Xi (even if many came to resent him). China’s leader has since worked hard to prevent the emergence of coalitions that might threaten his power. Officials are rotated more frequently. Efforts are made to keep them employed away from their home provinces. But clan links are harder to smash. One princeling currently towers above the others. He may not be the last of his kind.

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© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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