BEIJING — They were “born red” into the families of the hard-core Communists who seized power in China 58 years ago.
Known today as “princelings” — essentially the Communist equivalent of bluebloods — several more vaulted to positions of power with this week’s reshuffling of the Communist Party leadership.
Chief among the rising princelings is Xi Jinping, the Shanghai party chief who sprung onto the all-powerful nine-seat Politburo Standing Committee and now stands ready to replace President Hu Jintao when he's scheduled to leave power in 2012.
Xi’s father was a veteran of the Communist revolution and a vice premier who fell from grace but was later rehabilitated after the demise of Chairman Mao Zedong, the country’s iconic founder. But even in arising from a family that suffered deeply for a period, the 54-year-old Xi shares an experience common to the sons and daughters of modern China’s original leaders.
“They have known the conflicts within the Communist Party much better than other people,” said Li Datong, the ousted editor of a once-influential newspaper supplement, Freezing Point. “Almost all their parents were influenced directly by Mao. They know first-hand the cruelty within the party.”
The 25-member Politburo of the party, unveiled Monday, includes at least six men and one woman who are considered “princelings,” occupying more than a quarter of the seats. The much-larger Central Committee now has 19 “princelings,” also far greater than before. All were nurtured from the cradle by families of the founding generation or other senior leaders who reigned after the revolution.
Experts on China emphasize that those who wear the “princeling” label share no common creed or network. Their political interests often aren't identical. Other powerful interest groups may hold greater sway within the party, such as those who arose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, like President Hu, or those who rose to power in the crucible of Shanghai’s breakneck development.
“They are born aristocrats. But since their fathers may be enemies and belong to different factions, they seldom have political interaction,” said Zhang Zuhua, a former Youth League official who is now a political commentator.
Yet the unusual upbringing of the “princelings” gives them certain shared perspective on China’s past. Scholars say their status entitles them to adopt riskier behavior than some of their cautious brethren, although always with an eye toward safeguarding the power of the party that their fathers built.
“There’s a vast difference in the way they were treated in the past and the way they are treated today,” said Sidney Rittenberg, who spent 35 years in China, some of them in prison for alleged espionage and some as a ranking official.
Under Mao’s fierce rule, senior Communist cadres worked to ensure that their children received no favorable treatment, fearful of recrimination. In some areas, high-level family status remains an onus.
“In the military, it’s been a burden,” said Rittenberg, who now is a Seattle-based business consultant who travels frequently to China. “Old soldiers tend to be on the lookout for privilege to be given to someone who may be, say, the son of a former commander.”
With China’s economy veering toward a market system, some sons and daughters of high-level cadres drew on family connections to grow rich as powerbrokers or converted state assets to their private hands. Perceptions that they profited from privilege again tarnished their image. Some moved abroad.
The party still discourages news media from publishing or airing any mention of the family connections. Biographies of the incoming Politburo members don't mention their unusual family histories.
“Everything about the leaders is considered secret except what they want you to know,” said Li, the former editor. “This way, they can avoid having people tie them to corruption.”
But fear of public resentment has diminished, and many “princelings” are seen as part of China’s Communist nobility. And senior party leaders see them as a reliable source of talent.
“The current leadership is looking down the ranks for trustworthy people among the sons of the old leaders,” Rittenberg said.
Some of those plucked, such as Xi, whose father was brought down by Mao in 1962 and spent 16 years in jail before being rehabilitated (and remaining a firm Communist upon release), shunned business and toiled their way up the party ranks, often beginning as mere county-level officials.
Yet to be seen is how Xi, who holds a law degree, may differ from others on the Politburo Standing Committee. As the No. 6 in the hierarchy, he'll handle the daily affairs of the party, serving a five-year internship before leaping to the top job.
OTHER "PRINCELINGS" ON CHINA’S POLITBURO
— Liu Yandong, 61, now China’s most powerful woman, is the daughter of a former agricultural vice minister, Liu Ruilong.
— Zhou Yongkang, 64, an incoming party security chief, is the son of a former vice commissar of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
— Bo Xilai, 58, the outgoing commerce minister and former mayor of Dalian, is the son of the late Vice Premier Bo Yibo, considered one of the “eight immortals” of China’s revolutionary era.
— Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan, 59, is the son-in-law of late Vice Premier Yao Yilin.
— Li Yuanchao, 56, party boss of Jiangsu province, is son of former Shanghai Vice Mayor Li Gancheng.
— Yu Zhengsheng, 62, who may become the new party chief in Shanghai, is the son of a former Tianjin party boss who was once married to Jiang Qing, who later married former Chairman Mao Zedong.
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed from Beijing.)