Lying in a Beijing military hospital in 1990, General Wang Zhen told a visitor he felt betrayed. Decades after he risked his life fighting for an egalitarian utopia, the ideals he held as one of Communist China’s founding fathers were being undermined by the capitalist ways of his children -- business leaders in finance, aviation and computers.
“Turtle eggs,” he said to the visiting well-wisher, using a slang term for bastards. “I don’t acknowledge them as my sons.”
Two of the sons now are planning to turn a valley in northwestern China where their father once saved Mao Zedong’s army from starvation into a $1.6 billion tourist attraction. The resort in Nanniwan would have a revolution-era theme and tourist-friendly versions of the cave homes in which cadres once sheltered from the cold.
One son behind the project, Wang Jun, helped build two of the country’s biggest state-owned empires: Citic Group Corp., the state-run investment behemoth that was the first company to sell bonds abroad since the revolution; and China Poly Group Corp., once an arm of the military, that sold weapons and drilled for oil in Africa.
Today, the 71-year-old Wang Jun is considered the godfather of golf in China. He’s also chairman of a Hong Kong-listed company that jointly controls a pawnshop operator and of a firm providing back-office technology services to Chinese police, customs and banks.
His Australia-educated daughter, Jingjing, gives her home address in business filings as a $7 million Hong Kong apartment partly owned by Citic. Her daughter, 21-year-old Clare, details her life on social media, from the Swiss boarding school she attended to business-class airport lounges. Her “look of the day” posted on Aug. 24 featured pictures of a Lady Dior handbag, gold-studded Valentino shoes and an Alexander McQueen bracelet. Those accessories would cost about $5,000, more than half a year’s wages for the average Beijing worker.
The family’s wealth traces back to a gamble taken by General Wang and a group of battle-hardened revolutionaries, who are revered in China as the “Eight Immortals.” Backing Deng Xiaoping two years after Mao’s death in 1976, they wagered that opening China to the outside world would raise living standards, while avoiding social upheaval that would threaten the Communist Party’s grip on power.
In three decades, they and their successors lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty and created a home-owning middle class as China rose to become the world’s second-biggest economy. Chinese on average now eat six times more meat than they did in 1976, and 100 million people have traded in their bicycles for automobiles.
The Immortals also sowed the seeds of one of the biggest challenges to the Party’s authority. They entrusted some of the key assets of the state to their children, many of whom became wealthy. It was the beginning of a new elite class, now known as princelings. This is fueling public anger over unequal accumulation of wealth, unfair access to opportunity and exploitation of privilege -- all at odds with the original aims of the communist revolution.
To reveal the scale and origins of this red aristocracy, Bloomberg News traced the fortunes of 103 people, the Immortals’ direct descendants and their spouses. The result is a detailed look at one part of China’s elite and how its members reaped benefits from the country’s boom.
In the 1980s, they were chosen to run the new state conglomerates. In the 1990s, they tapped into real estate and the nation’s growing hunger for coal and steel. Today the Immortals’ grandchildren are players in private equity amid China’s integration into the global economy.
Twenty-six of the heirs ran or held top positions in state- owned companies that dominate the economy, data compiled by Bloomberg News show. Three children alone -- General Wang’s son, Wang Jun; Deng’s son-in-law, He Ping; and Chen Yuan, the son of Mao’s economic tsar -- headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011. That is equivalent to more than a fifth of China’s annual economic output.
The families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy. Forty-three of the 103 ran their own business or became executives in private firms, according to Bloomberg data.
He Ping, who was chairman of Poly Group until 2010, held 22.9 million shares in the group’s Hong Kong-listed real estate unit, Poly Property Group Co., as of April 29, 2008. Wang Xiaochao, the son-in-law of former President Yang Shangkun, another Immortal, owned about $32 million worth of shares in another property unit listed in Shanghai, Poly Real Estate Group Co., as of the end of June. Wang Jun owns 20 percent of a golf venture that counts Citic, the company he previously ran, as one of its main clients.
The third generation -- grandchildren of the Eight Immortals and their spouses, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s -- have parlayed family connections and overseas education into jobs in the private sector. At least 11 of the 31 members of that generation tracked by Bloomberg News ran their own businesses or held executive posts, most commonly in finance and technology.
Some were hired by Wall Street banks, including Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley. At least six worked for private equity and venture capital firms, which sometimes recruit princelings with the intention of using their connections for winning business.
“The Chinese Communist Party, pretty much led by these eight people, established their legitimacy as rulers of China because they were stronger and tougher than the other guys,” said Barry Naughton, a professor of Chinese economy at the University of California, San Diego. “And now they’re losing it, because they haven’t been able to control their own greed and selfishness.”