In China’s “dog-eat-dog” political culture, Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar told the Fairbank Center seminar, the family is both “a wealth-generating unit” and a “form of general protection.” As a result, he added, “you have a party that is seen as deeply corrupt.”
Before his ouster, Bo Xilai had an official annual salary of less than $20,000. But his son attended Harrow School, an exclusive private academy in London with annual fees of about $48,000; then Oxford, which, for overseas students, costs more than $25,000 a year just in tuition; and the Kennedy School, which, according to its own estimates, requires about $70,000 a year to cover tuition and living expenses.
‘Top of the food chain’
“This is about haves and have-nots,” said Hong Huang, the stepdaughter of Mao’s foreign minister Qiao Guanhua and a member of an earlier generation of American-educated princelings. “China’s old-boy network . . . is no different from America’s old-boy network,” said Hong, who went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and whose mother served as Mao’s English teacher.
“There is something about elitism that says if you are born in the right family, you have to go to the right school to perpetuate the glory of the family. Going to an elite college is a natural extension of that,” said Hong, now a Beijing-based style guru and publisher. Among her ventures is iLook, an edgy fashion and lifestyle magazine that offers tips on how to enjoy what a 2010 cover story proclaimed as China’s “Gilded Age.”
Noting that the Communist Party has drifted far from its early ideological moorings, Hong said she sees no contradiction between the desire for an Ivy League education and the current principles of the ruling party and its leaders: “What part of China is communist, and what part of Harvard is against elitist authoritarianism?”
Hong’s stepfather, Qiao, was purged as foreign minister in 1976 and his ministerial post passed to Mao’s former interpreter, Huang Hua, whose son, Huang Bin, also went to Harvard. At the time, China’s education system lay in ruins, wrecked by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and Mao’s vicious campaigns against intellectuals, who were reviled as the “stinking ninth category.”
Today, Chinese universities have not only recovered but become so fiercely competitive that getting into them is difficult even for well-connected princelings. Even so, top American universities still carry more cachet among many in China’s political and business elite, in part because they are so expensive. A degree from Harvard or the equivalent ranks as “the ultimate status symbol” for China’s elite, said Orville Schell, a Harvard graduate and director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.