The Tale of the Kidnapped Princeling

How critical can the powerful be of the truly powerful in modern China?

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Two years ago, on June 4 — the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and the most sensitive date in the Chinese political calendar — Ji Pomin received a text message from a high-placed friend: It said that former president Jiang Zemin had been taken to a military hospital in a critical condition. Ji fired off a coded message to hundreds of people in his address book to seek confirmation, asking: "The Supreme Old Master ascended to heaven?" Many of Ji’s politically connected friends forwarded the text to their friends, who misinterpreted the cryptic question as a statement. By June 6, overseas Chinese websites were reporting that former president Jiang Zemin was dead.

In established democracies, a false rumor about the health of an ageing Ronald Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher would be promptly debunked and have little bearing on the workings of government. In China’s powerful but brittle dictatorship, built on almost invisible lines of patronage, the false reports of Jiang’s death immediately became a major matter of national security. Chinese officialdom is extremely paranoid about anyone releasing unauthorized information about the leaders.  The 67-year-old Ji, a princeling — a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders — had long disliked Jiang for clinging on to power after his retirement, which he felt hurt China’s ability to institute a system of laws. And when security agents kidnapped him three days later, his fears were vindicated. But that Ji was able to survive the kidnapping unscathed, and even criticize Jiang with near impunity, shows how the party state still protects its own.

At that point in 2010, high-profile extra-judicial abductions, such as the very publicized disappearance of artist Ai Weiwei in mid-2011 had not yet become common. (Ai has survived as a critic for so long in part because his father, Ai Qing, was a leading poet for the party.) Since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, children of top leaders have been mostly immune from not only the law but also the teeth of the secret security apparatus, a freedom of which Ji is well aware. Over a series of several meetings over the next two years, Ji recounted the events that followed his fateful text message, on the condition it would not be reported until after China’s leadership transition — the twice-a-decade Party Congress, which ended on Wednesday Nov 14. Ji had told his captors he would not publicize his ordeal, and he told me he wanted to delay the release of his story until a less politically sensitive time.  

Ji Pomin grew up in a family well aware of the mercurial nature of power and those that wield it. We talked in Ji’s living room — the old bedroom of his mother, now deceased — surrounded by Qing Dynasty wooden panels, decorated with dragons, leftover from a time when Empress Dowager Cixi’s most powerful eunuch used the home as his headquarters. Ji’s father, a former member of the elite decision-making Politburo known for his honesty, had been moved there from a more prestigious home in 1980 after being purged. Because his father fell from power, Ji Pomin didn’t get the same advantages as other princelings; he studied aeronautical engineering and worked as a scholar at the state think tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences before retiring in 2006. He is one of China’s dozens of forgotten princelings who continues to enjoy status but not power.

A few days after Ji’s text message, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be from a parcel delivery service. They said the package was too big to fit down the lane in which he lived, so he walked to nearby Dongdan, one of Beijing’s busiest shopping areas, to collect it. Standing there, he said, in the blind spot between two security cameras outside an upmarket wedding photography store, were two burly men. They pulled a cloth hood over Ji’s head and bundled him into a car.

Ji told me that his first thought was that a triad had abducted him for ransom, but his captors assured him that was not the case. His second thought was that the black cloth hood had been used many times before and never washed. "That hood really stunk," he said. After a long drive, they arrived at an isolated luxury villa, where the hood was removed, and his eyes adjusted to a room filled with plain-clothed officers who he presumed to be from the Ministry of State Security — an agency that Ji’s father used to oversee.

It was there that Ji realized how the rumor he had inadvertently spread was potentially destabilizing to Jiang and the thousands of officials who depend directly and indirectly on the former President’sprotection and patronage. Ji’s captors seemed to know about his strong feelings toward Jiang, which Ji publicized in 2003 by posting a scathing letter on the Internet opposing Jiang’s decision to keep control of the military.

During the half-day interrogation, the security officials wanted to know the origins of Ji’s animosity towards Jiang, and Ji told them, he recounted. In his view, Jiang had made China virtually ungovernable by refusing to cede full authority to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002. Jiang held onto his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that oversees the military, for two full years after stepping down as chairman of the party in 2002. By contrast, Hu yielded control of his military chairmanship in mid-November when he stepped down as party chairman. Ji told me — perhaps with some bravado — that he spent three hours lecturing his captors on how Jiang had derailed China’s efforts to institutionalize its leadership successions and had paralyzed China’s political process, while they dutifully took notes.

"It’s as if George W. Bush had to work for a decade with a Cabinet left over from Clinton," says Ji, recalling what he told his interrogators. "Or if Obama’s State of the Union address was written by Bush. Jiang Zemin promoted dozens of generals while he was in power and those people are either morons or his henchmen. What a sad situation, and how ridiculous."

The daylight abduction of a princeling like Ji, in downtown Beijing, shows just how delicate the subject of elite politics has become. That Ji wasn’t tortured, that he felt emboldened to speak his mind, and that his captors politely drove him back to where they found him two days later, shows the privileges afforded by his status. The secret police had originally lured him out on to the street, says Ji, so they would not disturb his then 86 year-old mother, who had joined the revolutionary struggle with his father at the age of 14 in 1938. By contrast, Ji says they ransacked the homes of several people who received his message. And a historian whose work had influenced Ji’s negative views on Jiang was reportedly arrested and convicted of subversion in May 2011.

In July 2011, media again falsely reported Jiang’s death; it is unknown whether security services investigated Ji or his associates that time. In November 8, Jiang, who had appeared in public several times in the last year, showed his immense political influence by walking on stage for the opening of the Party Congress right behind his successor Hu, which doesn’t make Ji feel any better about the ex-leader. In a conversation in March he recalled what he told his interrogators: "Even if you kill me, my last words will be ‘the central government should investigate Jiang Zemin.’"

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