The sequence is the clearest example of how the failure of Chinese leaders to curb the crony deals of their children makes them perpetually vulnerable to their enemies and yet collectively secure, knowing that most leading families would not dare support a genuine corruption investigation that could jeopardize them all.
As the lure of the market grows ever greater and the Communist Party refuses to fetter its enormous administrative powers or subject itself to law, ambitious officials and entrepreneurs are increasingly forced to seek the favor of the politically well-connected in order to accumulate and protect their wealth. When contained, the greed this engenders can bind officials together and foster loyalty to the central party apparatus, the ultimate source of wealth and power. But many now believe that the restraint is gone: Corruption increasingly distorts policymaking, sabotages policy implementation, diminishes the leadership talent pool, and taints the party's legitimacy.
China's army of censors and propaganda officials ensure that the private dealings of cadre children never make it into mainland Chinese media. Nevertheless, even China's official mouthpieces acknowledge growing public discontent when it suits them, as they did shortly after the purge of Bo Xilai. "The spouses and children of some cadres have taken advantage of their power to seek personal gains, disregarding the law, thus stirring public outcry," Xinhua noted on April 14.
Even Premier Wen Jiabao, the lone public voice for political reform among top-ranking leaders, has long struggled for credibility in part because of his family's aggressive uses of his position to pursue private business opportunities: His son Winston co-founded the major private equity firm New Horizon Capital and now heads a state-owned satellite company.
Although the incoming president, Xi Jinping, is known for policing the business dealings of his nuclear family, he cannot exert the same control over the families of Zeng and Jiang, the two men who promoted him. Indeed, these and other top Chinese power players stand at the nexus of massive flows of capital; some of their sons and daughters have grown fabulously rich monetizing their abilities as gatekeepers. "This is a privileged group that only bothers talking in billions," says the Zeng acquaintance.
The last time the Communist Party seriously tackled corruption among the
princelings was in 1986, when the country's per capita income was one-tenth of
what it is today and officials were tentatively opening themselves to the power
of the market. The reformist party secretary at the time, Hu Yaobang, fought to
limit the privileges of leaders' children. He even empowered his security
apparatus to arrest the son of Politburo member Hu Qiaomu for embezzlement and reportedly supplying pornographic videotapes for sex parties in the People's Liberation Army. A group of party elders who also had
children engaged in murky business dealings were disturbed by Hu's audacity.
Hu's attempt to limit princeling corruption -- "no matter whose son is
involved," as his security chief put it -- contributed to his 1987 purge,
according to one of Hu's children.
For the Communist Party, transparency is a cure for corruption, but it could also pose an existential threat. Nepotism, corruption, and specifically the fortunes of leading princeling children fanned the popular outrage that grew into the Tiananmen protests, after the trigger of Hu Yaobang's death in April 1989. Hu's reformist successor Zhao Ziyang responded to protestor demands by offering to have the business dealings of his own family investigated, but he himself was purged shortly before the June 4th massacres. When Zhao's successor Jiang Zemin was helicoptered in from Shanghai to piece the party back together, he brought his former Shanghai deputy Zeng Qinghong into the General Office, the command center of the party.
Jiang occasionally launched anti-corruption campaigns against political opponents, guided by Zeng, but not against those of his own family and supporters. Zeng had two assets that made him uniquely capable of guiding President Jiang through the political and financial labyrinth of revolutionary elders and their children. First was his prodigious intellect and emotional intelligence, according to other princelings. Second were his parents. His father, who had been Mao's ruthless head of internal intelligence in the pre-revolution period, handed his son an intimate knowledge of the details and brutality of inner party struggle, according to a retired Party elder who has written extensively about the father. His mother had run a kindergarten for the children of high-ranking Shanghai cadres, and had bequeathed to him an alumni network of rising princeling leaders.