In the heyday of the Soviet era, Communist leaders were described by the dissident Yugoslav theorist Milovan Djilas as the “New Class,” whose power lay not in ownership of wealth but in control of it: all the property of the state was at their beck and call. There was the apocryphal but appropriate story of Brezhnev’s showing his humble mother around his historic office, his magnificent collection of foreign luxury cars and his palatial dacha with its superb meals, and asking for her impressions — to which she replied: “It’s wonderful, Leonid, but what happens if the Bolsheviks come back?”
But if even a fraction of the stories about the wealth and lifestyles of China’s “princelings” — the descendants of Mao’s revolutionary generation — are to be believed, China’s New Class wants not only control, but also ownership. Few of China’s netizens are likely to believe that Bo Xilai, the Politburo member and party boss of the mega-city of Chongqing who was ousted in March on corruption charges, was an aberration.
Why has ownership of wealth become so important for the Chinese elite? And why have so many Chinese leaders sent their children abroad for education? One answer surely is that they lack confidence about China’s future.
This may seem strange, given that the Chinese have propelled their country into the top ranks of global economic powerhouses over the past 30 years. There are those who predict a hard landing for an overheated economy — where growth has already slowed — but the acquisition of wealth is better understood not just as an economic cushion, or as pure greed, but as a political hedge.
China’s Communist leaders cling to Deng Xiaoping’s belief that their continuance in power will depend on economic progress. But even in China, a mandate based on competence can crumble in hard times. So globalizing one’s assets — transferring money and educating one’s children overseas — makes sense as a hedge against risk. (At least $120 billion has been illegally transferred abroad since the mid-1990s, according to one official estimate.)
Mao and his colleagues had a self-confidence born of many factors: triumph in civil war; a well-organized party apparatus; a Marxist-Leninist ideological framework, the road map to a socialist future; and the bulwark of the victorious People’s Liberation Army. Today, more than 60 years after the civil war, only the P.L.A. looks somewhat the same, and the self-confidence is fraying.
The denunciations of party leaders and officials by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution undermined the party’s authority and legitimacy. The party’s insecurity was accentuated by Deng’s rejection (in practice) of Marxism-Leninism. The cloak of ideological legitimacy was abandoned in the race for growth.
Today, the party’s 80 million members are still powerful, but most join the party for career advancement, not idealism. Every day, there are some 500 protests, demonstrations or riots against corrupt or dictatorial local party authorities, often put down by force. The harsh treatment that prompted the blind human-rights advocate Chen Guangcheng to seek American protection is only one of the most notorious cases. The volatile society unleashed against the state by Mao almost 50 years ago bubbles like a caldron. Stories about the wealth amassed by relatives of party leaders like Mr. Bo, who have used their family connections to take control of vast sectors of the economy, will persuade even loyal citizens that the rot reaches to the very top.
The Bo affair is not just about massive corruption but also succession. Mr. Bo had developed a high-profile “Chongqing model” characterized by crime busting, Maoist singalongs, cheap housing and other welfare provisions. It was a populist, and popular, attempt by a charismatic “princeling,” son of a revolutionary hero, to assert his natural right to ascend to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress later this year. Among the rumors circulating in China is that, once on the committee, Mr. Bo would have tried to replace the party’s incoming general secretary and president agreed to by the outgoing leadership: Xi Jinping.
Mao, who died in 1976, hand-picked his successor. Deng, who died in 1997, blessed Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao to follow him. Mr. Hu, not being a revolutionary hero like Mao or the godfather of economic reform like Deng, did not have the prestige to appoint his successor. The low-key Mr. Xi, a princeling like Mr. Bo, emerged as a result of jostling behind closed doors. Lacking institutional legitimacy and a laying of hands by an elder, he might have looked an easy target to an ambitious Mr. Bo.
In the months ahead, party leaders will use every propaganda tool to dissipate the damage inflicted on leadership unity, party discipline and national “harmony” by the Bo debacle. They might divert criticism from Bo by depicting his allegedly murderous wife as China’s Lady Macbeth. But members of China’s New Class will still worry that the revelations about elite corruption have exposed them to the danger of the Bolsheviks coming back.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of government at Harvard, is a co-author of Mao’s Last Revolution.