An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Children Devour the Revolution

A rare inside look at what one of China's most influential generals really fears most.


BEIJING – The Arab Spring that swept away dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 unnerved many in the Chinese leadership. Liu Yuan, one of the boldest and most ambitious generals in China’s People’s Liberation Army, was particularly shaken by what he identified as a fatal weakness of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi: his son. Until the revolution, Qaddafi’s second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, was seen as a Western-leaning reformer, a voice for modernization and democracy. And he was educated in the same class of prestigious overseas universities attended by dozens of princelings (the sons and daughters of high-ranking Chinese officials).

In an extraordinary closed door speech in February, notes of which Foreign Policy has seen, Liu cautioned that Saif exposed himself to the flattery, privilege, and ideological brainwashing of the "Western hostile forces" -amorphous enemies of Chinese communism. And he returned to Libya with ideas of liberty and democracy, which fatally softened the ideological defenses of his once-defiant father, Liu said, leading to his bloody demise. It is exactly this kind of Fifth Column that Liu fears could kill China from the inside.

That’s not a message that China’s elite are pleased to hear. The son of former President Liu Shaoqi, Liu was listed as one of the Party delegates assembled this week in Beijing for the Communist Party’s epochal 18th Congress, where President Hu Jintao will begin to officially yield power to the next generation of leaders. But Liu didn’t appear onstage on Thursday with his peers. His absence could mean that the leadership’s most outspoken advocate for Communism’s anti-corruption and anti-Western ideals may have been sidelined. "Perhaps people feared Liu could not be controlled," said a princeling friend of Liu’s this week, whose father was a top Chinese general.

General Liu’s fascination with Qaddafi may seem surprising, given the differences of their respective regimes. The world’s second-largest economy, run by nine unassuming technocrats, is seldom compared with the oil-rich basket case formerly run by a madman. But Liu believes that the world’s most successful dictatorship could quickly go the way of Libya if the Communist Party loses the ability to tell itself a unifying story that justifies its monopoly on power. Qaddafi’s mistake was not that he had failed to reform towards democracy and law, as many believed, but that his son, seduced by Western ideas, persuaded him to reform at all. On the eve of the Party’s transition, as cries for the new generation of leaders to reform China grow louder, Liu fears that if the elite do not insulate themselves, their children will devour the revolution.

Some rival princelings inside the Party claimed to me that Liu was taking a swipe at his own leaders. Indeed, at least eight of the nine members of the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, have a child who has studied or worked extensively abroad. Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang and the incumbent, Wen Jiabao, both have children who have studied in the United States; Winston Wen studied at Northwestern University and went on to found the private equity firm New Horizon Capital. President Hu Jintao’s son-in-law, Daniel Mao, studied at Stanford, worked in Silicon Valley, and headed the Internet portal Sina, which owns the popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo. The daughter of propaganda chief Li Changchun, Li Tong, studied at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and now has a senior investment banking position at the state-owned Bank of China. Zhou Bin, the son of security chief Zhou Yongkang is believed to have studied in Canada, according to Chinese business sources. A son of the Standing Committee’s fourth-ranking member, Jia Qinglin, is rumored to have been living in Australia, while granddaughter Jasmine Li studied at Stanford. The list even includes Liu’s close friend, Xi Jinping, the general secretary in waiting. Xi’s daughter is studying at Harvard, appearing to show great caution in her dealings with the Western world. 

The downfall of Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai presents the best-known case of a princeling who has been what Liu might call "infiltrated." Family members of Bo, another of Liu’s close princeling friends, have paid an enormous price for not being as guarded as their elite peers. If Saif Qaddafi exposed himself to what Liu calls Western spies at the London School of Economics, then Bo’s son, Bo Guagua did so while studying at Oxford and Harvard, where he grew dangerously entwined with a British businessman and casual intelligence informant, Neil Heywood. (Bo Xilai’s career exploded in March; it emerged soon after that his wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered Heywood last November.) 

Liu voiced fears about his colleagues’ vulnerabilities just days after Bo Xilai’s kingdom in Chongqing began to crumble, though it’s unclear what effect Liu’s words have had. "U.S., British, and other Western intelligence agencies brainwashed Qaddafi’s second son, Saif, while he was studying in the West," said Liu in his February speech to officers in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) sprawling Logistics Department, where he is political commissar. (The department handles enormous contracts in land, housing, food, finance, and services for China’s 2.3 million-strong military.)

"Saif accepted the West’s so-called ‘universal values’ of freedom and democracy and then imparted these values to his father, who abandoned his once-strongly propagated ‘Libyan values’, teetering towards the West until finally losing faith," he said.

Liu’s speech built upon an internal report by one of the Party’s senior ideological warriors, Zhu Jidong, who holds a position China’s propaganda system (which he asked me not to identify).

Zhu told me that the West’s "hegemonic capitalist class" created Western values — democracy, human rights, and freedom — disguised them as "universal values," and deployed them to infiltrate and brainwash Chinese people via non-government organizations, the media, and the children of top leaders. This Western conspiracy, rather than any natural evolution in the aspirations of an increasingly prosperous, pluralistic, and well-informed society, is the root cause of the ideological warfare that is now raging across China, says Zhu. "Universal values and red culture are in conflict."


Liu lives more frugally than many of his princeling peers and makes a point of demonstrating that he can easily mix with peasants and rural cadres. He loves to golf but avoids visiting any of Beijing’s luxurious golf courses because that would clash with his revolutionary ideals. (And it would hurt his carefully constructed image.) He confines himself to belting balls against a net he has erected on the roof of his villa, which was allocated to him when he was in the People’s Armed Police, China’s internal security force.

Over the last year, Liu has marshaled his family’s prestige and gambled his future by challenging what he sees as the corruption, inequality, and hypocrisy of the Communist Party and the PLA. As I reported in April in Foreign Policy, Liu described the army beset by a disease of "malignant individualism" where officers follow only orders that suit them, advance on the strength of their connections, and openly sell their services at "clearly marked prices."

Some Chinese netizens see parallels between the ideals that Liu has both publically and privately fought for, and those that motivated the Libyan people to overthrow Qaddafi. When confronted with the thought of losing the regime his father helped establish, however, Liu instinctively identifies with the predicament of the dictator — rather than the people he brutalized.

Zhu’s internal report mentioned "family members;" but Liu focused only on the children. Liu’s only son is developmentally disabled, excluding him from college. His sister, Liu Ting, was educated at Harvard and runs the Asia Link Group, a lucrative consultancy that helps foreign businesses cut through the opaque bureaucracy responsible for China’s tightly restricted aviation airspace.

Whatever Liu’s motivations, Chinese officials responsible for counterintelligence share his concerns. "Yes, this is something we worry a lot about," says a security official. (When pressed, however, the official said he may yet send his own daughter overseas for college for a more open-minded education.) High-ranking officials are struggling to reconcile the need to maintain the ideological purity of the collective while giving their own children, some of whom are among the 1.4 million Chinese who were studying abroad as of the end of 2011, the chance for a better life.

In recent years, as internal stresses have grown, the Party has increasingly blamed the West for China’s domestic instability. In the 1950s, Chairman Mao seized on U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s concept of China’s "Peaceful Evolution" — wherein the children of Chinese leaders would want more freedom, a path that could lead to democracy — to claim that Western leaders had a strategy to erode the ideological integrity of China’s leading families, over the course of several generations. After the Tibet riots in 2008, the phrase returned to prominence the pages of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party.

The People’s Daily printed the phrase "Western hostile forces" only twice in 2007. In 2009, however, the year of the bloody Xinjiang riots, it used the phrase 16 times. In 2011, when fear of revolutionary contagion was at its height, the phrase-count jumped to 21; In February, days after the Egyptian people forced then-President Hosni Mubarak to step down, a Chinese security chief warned of "schemes of some Western hostile forces attempting to Westernize and split us." In mid October 2011, after Mubarak had appeared in court in a steel cage, and NATO forces and Libyan rebels were closing in on Qaddafi, President Hu Jintao sounded the alarm about nefarious Western forces — the first time he is known to have used the phrase."International hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China," Hu said in a speech to party leaders, not published until this January.  

The Maoist Internet platform Red Flag published some of Zhu’s report last November. A classified section, which deals directly with lessons for China, has been seen by Foreign Policy. It says Chinese children educated in the West are at risk of being "infiltrated by hostile forces" and must, therefore, be strictly screened and monitored before returning to important work.

"When employing those with experience of studying or working in the West we must first examine their political stance," wrote Zhu. "Those who have a question or problem of politics should be strictly banned from service no matter how talented and capable they are." Zhu wrote that all returnees need to be urgently "investigated … as soon as possible to check whether they have been ‘peacefully evolved’ by the West." Only with such vigilance, Zhu insists — to the point of treating the children of the Party as potential traitors — can China avoid the disastrous road of privatization and Westernization dressed up as "reform." (Chinese who have studied abroad, including princelings, are screened before taking significant government positions, but Zhu recommends the process be far more rigorous.)

Zhu’s report seemed to resonate among China’s leaders, at least those whose children have not lived overseas. "There were a few ministry and provincial level leaders who rang me directly or reached me through other channels," said Zhu, in the March interview. "Some believed my warning was excellent; others felt it did not go far enough."

Liu told his officers in February that Western brainwashing of Chinese children was part of a much larger ideological struggle: amorphous enemy forces had precipitated the Arab Spring and then turned their "spears" towards China. "We must not change our beliefs," he said. "Once we lose our pursuit and veneration of long-term common ideals we have lost our flag and lost our spirit, even lost our nation." Zhu and Liu both believe the Party should return to the "serve the people" ethos of the early Maoist era. It’s an uphill battle that Liu may no longer be in the position to fight.

<p> John Garnaut is China correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. He is writing a book on the princelings shaping China's future. </p> <p> Photo: Hu Yaobang (white coat), with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to the right, during a February 1986 inspection tour to Guizhou. </p>