Sunday, November 27, 2011

China's Emerging Hereditary Elite: Inevitable Decay of Empire?

Every empire eventually reaches a point where the number of individuals and factions vying for power passes out of balance. This is true from empires as small as a family farm to empires such as the USSR, Communist China, Imperial Rome, or the bloated and rapidly inflating bureaucracy of the USA.

In China, the one-child policy tends to retard the development of hereditary clashes within the same family. But the ruling (and ravaging) of the Chinese empire is developing along clear family lines. An obvious hereditary elite -- a new nobility -- is arising within the celestial kingdom, and it is set to acquire a firmer grip on power with the decadal change of leaders next year.
Their visibility has particular resonance as the country approaches a once-a-decade leadership change next year, when several older princelings are expected to take the Communist Party's top positions. That prospect has led some in Chinese business and political circles to wonder whether the party will be dominated for the next decade by a group of elite families who already control large chunks of the world's second-biggest economy and wield considerable influence in the military.

"There's no ambiguity—the trend has become so clear," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Princelings were never popular, but now they've become so politically powerful, there's some serious concern about the legitimacy of the 'Red Nobility.' The Chinese public is particularly resentful about the princelings' control of both political power and economic wealth."

...The antics of some officials' children have become a hot topic on the Internet in China, especially among users of Twitter-like micro-blogs, which are harder for Web censors to monitor and block because they move so fast. In September, Internet users revealed that the 15-year-old son of a general was one of two young men who crashed a BMW into another car in Beijing and then beat up its occupants, warning onlookers not to call police.

...Many princelings engage in legitimate business, but there is a widespread perception in China that they have an unfair advantage in an economic system that, despite the country's embrace of capitalism, is still dominated by the state and allows no meaningful public scrutiny of decision making.

The state owns all urban land and strategic industries, as well as banks, which dole out loans overwhelmingly to state-run companies. The big spoils thus go to political insiders who can leverage personal connections and family prestige to secure resources, and then mobilize the same networks to protect them.

The People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, acknowledged the issue last year, with a poll showing that 91% of respondents believed all rich families in China had political backgrounds. A former Chinese auditor general, Li Jinhua, wrote in an online forum that the wealth of officials' family members "is what the public is most dissatisfied about." _WSJ "China's Princelings"
Speaking of lowered social mobility, one intriguing development in the Chinese educational system, is the slashing of the number of subject areas in university. Education has generally been seen as a path toward upward social mobility in most countries. But China's leaders appear to feel that too many Chinese are becoming college educated.

Revolutions typically begin among intellectuals, and the better educated, when they feel that a society has grown too closed to allow them to achieve their potential. It will be interesting to see how those who are being closed out of the hereditary elite's celestial wonderland will react, as the new nobility tightens its grip on both political and economic power.

And it will be fascinating to watch the inevitable coming power plays between the members of the hereditary elite as they spar for advantage in the higher reaches of wealth and power. It is the sort of infighting one expects to see before deep schisms start to form, and power becomes consolidated regionally rather than nationally.

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