THIS HAS BEEN a riveting time for those interested in the marriage of wealth and power in China. A rising elite has fused capitalism and political might with such spectacular success that the egalitarian dreams of Communist China’s founders seem lost in the mists of time. The implications are immense for the world’s second-largest economy.
A series of revealing inquiries into the Chinese elite have been published in the last year by Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. With a level of detail not found in the Chinese news media, the articles have portrayed how powerful and well-connected families grew extremely wealthy. Of particular interest are the so-called princelings: sons, daughters and grandchildren of the revolutionary founders who fought alongside Mao Zedong and stood with Deng Xiaoping. The children seem to have inherited a golden touch.
Bloomberg reported Dec. 26 on the fortunes of 103 descendants of the revolutionaries revered in China as the “Eight Immortals,” who backed Deng two years after Mao’s death. Three of the descendants headed or still head state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011, or about a fifth of China’s national output. Twenty-six ran or held top positions in state-owned companies; 43 ran their own businesses or became executives in private firms.
The Journal, meanwhile, reported Dec. 27 on a survey of the Chinese legislature that found it is filled with millionaires and billionaires. Among China’s richest 1,024 people, the Journal reported, 160 are seated in the Communist Party Congress or a prominent advisory group. The business card of one clothing magnate listed 10 political positions.
Earlier reports showed how families of China’s leaders grew rich and chronicled the spectacular fall of Bo Xilai, the son of one of the “immortals,” who was ousted from the party and accused of wrongdoing after his wife was found guilty of murdering a British businessman.
What’s surprising in all this is not the wealth but the pattern of how those with party heritage and privilege turned their connections into assets. China’s capitalism was unleashed without basic tools important to governing it: rule of law, a competitive political system and a free press. The winners in such a wild boom are often determined not by the market but by arbitrary forces. Pedigree and favoritism rule, breeding corruption and envy.
No doubt, the latest disclosures will seep through China’s censors. They will intensify resentments of many Chinese over the already yawning gap between rich and poor in society and undermine the party’s legitimacy at a time when a new generation of leaders is taking the reins. China’s model of raging economic growth without political freedom or rule of law has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But there has always been an underside, and now a new dimension of it lays exposed.