Chinese princeling and Anbang ‘adviser’ Chen Xiaolu dies at 71

Former Red Guard publicly apologised for the torture and persecution of his teachers during the Cultural Revolution

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 11:25pm

Chen Xiaolu, a prominent Chinese princeling who expressed remorse and apologised for his role in the Cultural Revolution, died on Wednesday at the age of 71.

Chen, youngest son of Marshal Chen Yi who helped found communist China, died after a heart attack in hospital on the southern island of Hainan, mainland media reported, citing family members.

The military man-turned-businessman made headlines when he issued a public apology in 2013 for the torture and persecution of his teachers during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a decade of violence and upheaval set off by Mao Zedong.

Outside China, he attracted media attention mostly for his ties to Anbang, the troubled Chinese insurer which at the height of its global expansion bought New York’s landmark Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Chen was listed as one of its early directors on company registry records, when it was a modest car insurance firm. In a statement on social media in early 2015, he said he was an “adviser” to the company and held no shares.

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Anbang was taken over by the government last month, with its chairman Wu Xiaohui prosecuted for alleged fraud and embezzlement, as China moves to rein in financial risks that threaten to trip up the economy.

Chen’s public repentance was among a number of confessions made by former Red Guards – including some other princelings – four years ago. At the time he said he had observed “in society a trend of trying to reverse the verdict on the Cultural Revolution”.

“My official apology has come too late,” he said in the letter, posted on the alumni website of Beijing No 8 Middle School, where he organised violent public denouncements of school principals, teachers and fellow pupils as a student leader five decades ago.

“But for the purification of the soul, the progress of society and the future of the nation, one must make this kind of apology. Without reflection, how can one speak of progress?” he wrote.

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Apart from chairing the school’s revolutionary committee, Chen also set up the Red Guard Police Corp in Xichen district. Joined by many other princelings, the group was meant to stop the violent attacks of more radical Red Guards.

After his father Chen Yi was sidelined by Mao for daring to criticise the Cultural Revolution, Chen was sent by then-premier Zhou Enlai to the army. He also spent a few years working for the Chinese defence attaché in London.

He returned to China in 1985, joining the Research Office for Political Reform under the party’s Central Committee. There he was tasked with pushing for political reforms under late liberal leader Zhao Ziyang.

Chen advocated for a more democratic and independent workers’ union during his time in the research office, and helped draft the work report of the 13th party congress held in 1987.

But the liberal-minded political reforms promised in the report were brought to a halt by the government after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy protests two years later.

“After my time in the research office, I found out that the Chinese bureaucratic system covers and contains everything – you cannot have freedom as long as you’re in it,” Chen was quoted as saying in a book on China’s political reform in the 1980s by Lu Wei, one of his colleagues at the office.

In 1992, Chen left the establishment and went into business.

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A Shanghai-based businessman who knew Chen said his military background played an important role in helping the princeling vastly expand his business empire.

“The businesses he was dealing with are all of a staggering size,” he said. “Given the complex nature of those deals, he was clearly an intelligent man with the clout to keep everything under control.”

The source added that Chen also enjoyed travelling, including a trip to the Antarctic a few years ago.

Additional reporting by Daniel Ren