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.