BEIJING - The Arab Spring that swept away dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 unnerved many in the Chinese leadership. Liu Yuan, one of the boldest and most ambitious generals in China's People's Liberation Army, was particularly shaken by what he identified as a fatal weakness of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi: his son. Until the revolution, Qaddafi's second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, was seen as a Western-leaning reformer, a voice for modernization and democracy. And he was educated in the same class of prestigious overseas universities attended by dozens of princelings (the sons and daughters of high-ranking Chinese officials).
In an extraordinary closed door speech in February, notes of which Foreign Policy has seen, Liu cautioned that Saif exposed himself to the flattery, privilege, and ideological brainwashing of the "Western hostile forces" -amorphous enemies of Chinese communism. And he returned to Libya with ideas of liberty and democracy, which fatally softened the ideological defenses of his once-defiant father, Liu said, leading to his bloody demise. It is exactly this kind of Fifth Column that Liu fears could kill China from the inside.
That's not a message that China's elite are pleased to hear. The son of former President Liu Shaoqi, Liu was listed as one of the Party delegates assembled this week in Beijing for the Communist Party's epochal 18th Congress, where President Hu Jintao will begin to officially yield power to the next generation of leaders. But Liu didn't appear onstage on Thursday with his peers. His absence could mean that the leadership's most outspoken advocate for Communism's anti-corruption and anti-Western ideals may have been sidelined. "Perhaps people feared Liu could not be controlled," said a princeling friend of Liu's this week, whose father was a top Chinese general.
General Liu's fascination with Qaddafi may seem surprising, given the differences of their respective regimes. The world's second-largest economy, run by nine unassuming technocrats, is seldom compared with the oil-rich basket case formerly run by a madman. But Liu believes that the world's most successful dictatorship could quickly go the way of Libya if the Communist Party loses the ability to tell itself a unifying story that justifies its monopoly on power. Qaddafi's mistake was not that he had failed to reform towards democracy and law, as many believed, but that his son, seduced by Western ideas, persuaded him to reform at all. On the eve of the Party's transition, as cries for the new generation of leaders to reform China grow louder, Liu fears that if the elite do not insulate themselves, their children will devour the revolution.
Some rival princelings inside the Party claimed to me that Liu was taking a swipe at his own leaders. Indeed, at least eight of the nine members of the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, have a child who has studied or worked extensively abroad. Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang and the incumbent, Wen Jiabao, both have children who have studied in the United States; Winston Wen studied at Northwestern University and went on to found the private equity firm New Horizon Capital. President Hu Jintao's son-in-law, Daniel Mao, studied at Stanford, worked in Silicon Valley, and headed the Internet portal Sina, which owns the popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo. The daughter of propaganda chief Li Changchun, Li Tong, studied at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and now has a senior investment banking position at the state-owned Bank of China. Zhou Bin, the son of security chief Zhou Yongkang is believed to have studied in Canada, according to Chinese business sources. A son of the Standing Committee's fourth-ranking member, Jia Qinglin, is rumored to have been living in Australia, while granddaughter Jasmine Li studied at Stanford. The list even includes Liu's close friend, Xi Jinping, the general secretary in waiting. Xi's daughter is studying at Harvard, appearing to show great caution in her dealings with the Western world.
The downfall of Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai presents the best-known case of a princeling who has been what Liu might call "infiltrated." Family members of Bo, another of Liu's close princeling friends, have paid an enormous price for not being as guarded as their elite peers. If Saif Qaddafi exposed himself to what Liu calls Western spies at the London School of Economics, then Bo's son, Bo Guagua did so while studying at Oxford and Harvard, where he grew dangerously entwined with a British businessman and casual intelligence informant, Neil Heywood. (Bo Xilai's career exploded in March; it emerged soon after that his wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered Heywood last November.)
Liu voiced fears about his colleagues' vulnerabilities just days after Bo Xilai's kingdom in Chongqing began to crumble, though it's unclear what effect Liu's words have had. "U.S., British, and other Western intelligence agencies brainwashed Qaddafi's second son, Saif, while he was studying in the West," said Liu in his February speech to officers in the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) sprawling Logistics Department, where he is political commissar. (The department handles enormous contracts in land, housing, food, finance, and services for China's 2.3 million-strong military.)
"Saif accepted the West's so-called ‘universal values' of freedom and democracy and then imparted these values to his father, who abandoned his once-strongly propagated ‘Libyan values', teetering towards the West until finally losing faith," he said.
Liu's speech built upon an internal report by one of the Party's senior ideological warriors, Zhu Jidong, who holds a position China's propaganda system (which he asked me not to identify).
Zhu told me that the West's "hegemonic capitalist class" created Western values -- democracy, human rights, and freedom -- disguised them as "universal values," and deployed them to infiltrate and brainwash Chinese people via non-government organizations, the media, and the children of top leaders. This Western conspiracy, rather than any natural evolution in the aspirations of an increasingly prosperous, pluralistic, and well-informed society, is the root cause of the ideological warfare that is now raging across China, says Zhu. "Universal values and red culture are in conflict."