On Wednesday morning, Jodi Seth, the communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was swamped with calls on a subject she knew little about: Chinese “princelings,” or the children and grandchildren of prominent members of China’s Communist Party, many of them studying and living in the U.S. Seth wasn’t the only one flooded with inquiries she could do little to answer. Her counterparts at the State Department, the FBI and Harvard were experiencing a similar phenomenon. The princelings, it seems, have become somewhat of an American fascination.
Of course, all this started with the story of a single princeling, Bo Guagua, and his parents. Bo’s grandfather was Bo Yibo, a former Vice Premier of China and one of the most illustrious revolutionaries of the Mao Zedong era. His father Bo Xilai is governor of Chongqing and was on the fast track to becoming a ruling member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party until a scandal embroiled him and his wife. Now Bo Xilai stands accused of what is called “serious discipline violations,” and Guagua’s mother is implicated in the alleged cyanide murder of a British businessman. But perhaps the most interesting twist in the charges against the family is the naming of Bo Guagua as a person of interest, despite the fact that the 24-year-old has spent most of the past two years 7,000 miles away at Harvard’s Kennedy School earning a master’s degree. What was the sin of the son? His extravagance.
“What the higher levels have tried to portray for many years now is the notion that the higher levels are clean and they’re trying to reduce or limit the corruption at the local levels [of the government and the party]. So even if you’re angry at the local levels, you should at least have faith in the system,” says Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. “The danger here is, it runs the risk of communicating to people that the top of the system itself is highly corrupt. Whereas Bo Xilai was the guy who was caught, it is much broader than that. I’m confident that as they nail down specifics against Bo and his family, they’ll seek to portray this as a story of how the system works. When they found out about it, justice was done.”
While Bo Xilai and his wife are probably going to get the little red handbook thrown at them, what is the punishment for extravagance? The charges against Bo Xilai and his wife are egregious, but Bo Guagua has perhaps done more damage — or will have by the end of the affair — to the reputation of the upper echelons of the Communist Party than any one else in his family. The tales of his alleged wild parties with Hollywood actors, his tooling around in a red Ferrari and his decadent lifestyle have caught the attention of the press.
China has changed in the years since the revolution when everyone was expected to live simply. Bo Guagua and his contemporaries are everything the Communist Party stalwarts have sought not to be: frivolous, glittering, pampered, privileged. And while Bo Guagua has dropped off the map, abandoning his $3,000-a-month Boston luxury apartment for something in an undisclosed location, there is no shortage of princelings to focus on. There are hundreds if not thousands of them in the U.S. alone. “The reality is [there is] a very large number of Chinese officials, not only of highest levels but throughout the system, who send their children abroad whenever they can,” says Lieberthal.
The American media aren’t the only ones to find the princelings fascinating. Indeed, it is a much more crucial development that Chinese blogs were onto Bo Guagua even before the scandal enveloped his parents. They were the first to track his glitzy existence, for example, writing about Bo Guagua allegedly using his red Ferrari to pick up the daughter of former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman for an event. The same blogs follow former People’s Liberation Army marshal Ye Jianying’s granddaughter Ye Mingzi’s latest fashion design or former Vice Premier Wang Li’s granddaughter Wan Baobao’s jewelry designs. They also traffic in unsubstantiated speculation (like whether the daughter of a prominent Chinese leader, attending Harvard under an assumed name, dated basketball phenom Jeremy Lin).
Singling out Bo Guagua may be the regime’s shot across the bow to other young princelings: keep a low profile or you could end up like him. But surely Bo Guagua is only the first installment in what promises to be a long and dramatic soap opera. It’s hard to imagine that none of the princelings want to be the Paris Hilton of China. As the story unfolds, the test will be how the Communist Party handles it. The trouble is that money and what it can flaunt is central to Chinese society nowadays. “China itself is very much focused on making money as a core goal of people throughout that system,” says Lieberthal. “In fact, there are complaints in China all the time that people are worried that the focus is so strong that it isn’t properly balanced by ethical considerations. The ethic is making money. And if that ethic isn’t tempered, you may have a rapidly growing economy but you’ve got real problems.”