Bo Xilai

Princelings in the spotlight

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2009, 12:00am

Two news developments over the past few months have put the spotlight on one of the mainland's most secretive and controversial groups - the offspring of top leaders, or princelings as they are commonly known.

After receiving an award as one of the top 10 outstanding young Chinese in Britain in May, Bo Guagua, a son of Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai and a grandson of late party elder Bo Yibo, intrigued mainlanders last month with a speech at elite Peking University and by openly talking about his life and that of his family. What has particularly captivated the state media and the internet forums was the vow by the 22-year-old that he would never go into politics or business; instead, he would pursue his interests in culture or education. During the talk he also admitted he was not a party member and made no secret of the fact that he was the first mainlander to study at Britain's exclusive Harrow School for boys and now studies at Oxford University.

Understandably, his unusual public candour set off intense debate on the mainland, with state media hailing the good-looking young man as the most popular 'red child'.

By contrast, another red child found himself in the limelight against his will last week. Overseas media reported that authorities in Namibia and the European Union had launched separate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing involving a company controlled by Hu Haifeng, a son of President Hu Jintao .

According to the reports, Namibia's anti-corruption investigators arrested three people on corruption charges in connection with a lucrative contract for Nuctech, which manufactures and sells airport X-ray scanners. The younger Hu was president of Nuctech and is now the party secretary of Nuctech's parent company, Tsinghua Holdings.

The European Union is probing whether Nuctech is involved in unfair trade practices by selling products at unusually low prices. The two cases are not related, and there is no indication that the younger Hu is involved in either case.

But the mainland media censors have wasted no time in ordering all search engines to block any reference to the two cases. A search of the younger Hu's name in English or Chinese on or yesterday returned a warning that 'in compliance with the relevant laws and regulations, some results cannot be displayed'.

Overseas news media have speculated that the authorities may believe those news reports may prove embarrassing to China's president and leadership. They have made their anti-corruption campaign a battle of life and death for the party. But as is usual, the decision to block has roused the curiosity of mainlanders, who have circulated the relevant stories through e-mails or internet forums.

The discussions involving the younger Bo and younger Hu have once again highlighted one of the trickiest issues facing the top mainland leaders - what to do about the activities of their offspring and wives. Tens of millions of mainlanders angry over rampant corruption believe that the mainland leadership's anti-corruption battle will go nowhere unless they set examples and sort out their family members' affairs first.

According to ancient Chinese wisdom passed through dynasties and often recited these days as a tenet for high-ranking officials, a person will receive the mandate of heaven only if he first cultivates his own moral character, then sorts out his family, and learns the strategies to govern the nation well.

Sorting out the family members can be the hardest of the three.

On the mainland, most official corruption cases that have brought down high-level officials usually involve their children, wives, and other close family relatives taking advantage of their power for personal gain.

Rumours about the business activities of children of top mainland officials are rampant with persistent speculation implicating them in multibillion-yuan deals in property development, banking, foreign trade and initial public offerings.

According to a widely circulated internet report, more than 90 per cent of the 3,220 richest mainlanders with assets valued over 100 million yuan (HK$113.6 million) are princelings. Mainland officials have privately admitted that repeated efforts to require all officials to publicly disclose their assets have not moved off the drawing board partly because of opposition from high-ranking officials themselves.

Unlike in a democracy, where the media plays a crucial role in monitoring the business dealings of leaders' children, the princelings appear to enjoy the same privileges accorded to their parents: off limits to media scrutiny unless invited.

That explains why mainlanders are so intrigued by the younger Bo's unabashed engagement with the media, making many wonder if and when others will follow suit.