A rare photograph sheds new light on China’s most important social network.
A few years after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, as China began opening up to the world, a youthful Xi Jinping attended a fortnightly study group with other top leaders’ children, known as princelings, to network and make sense of the momentous change around them.
In early March, Xi will be appointed president of China (he’s already the head of the Communist Party and the military). Throughout his ascent, Xi stayed close to many in the group as they climbed to the top of the party and came to identify themselves as Hong Erdai, or "Second-Generation Red."
This March 2006 photo, of a reunion of the study group and some others, is probably the most comprehensive gathering of high-ranking princelings in the public record, and it illustrates their dominance over the government and the economy.
In the middle row in a tan jacket stands businessman Hu Shiying, who runs a plethora of official and quasi-official organisations ranging from martial arts to green technology. The convenor of the close-knit study group, Hu is the son of Hu Qiaomu, Chairman Mao Zedong’s main secretary. Taken during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the photo is hosted on the website of the Global Mayors Forum, a civic organization Hu runs. (Hu is famous among the Beijing elite for being one of the only high-ranking princeling children to have been jailed for corruption, in the mid-1980s. Scholar Richard Baum wrote in 1996 that Hu "had reportedly been involved in a number of illicit activities, including providing pornographic video tapes for PLA sex parties.")
Standing next to him is Xi, the son of a vice premier; then Wang Qishan, the son-in-law of a vice premier and a member of China’s top decision making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, where he’s in charge of fighting corruption. Wang stands next to Liu Xiaojiang, who as Navy Commissar is one of the most important officials in the PLA Navy; Liu is also the son of a general and the son-in-law of former Party boss Hu Yaobang.
The bald guy in the center is Chen Yuan, chairman of one of China’s most important financial institutions, the China Development Bank, which lends more money internationally than the World Bank, and the son of Chen Yun, one of China’s most important economic planners. Bo Xicheng, the brother of disgraced Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the son of a vice-premier, and a successful businessman and political networker in his own right, stands in the back row, second from the right. Standing next to Bo is PLA General Liu Yuan, a close associate of Bo and the son of former Chinese president Liu Shaoqi. Other top lawyers, businessman, and bankers smile into the camera with their better-known colleagues. Five of the group are descendants of revolutionary veterans known as the "Eight Immortals" after their ascendancy to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy in the 1980s.
In the front row in a white jacket, hands clasped together, is Xi Jinping’s second wife Peng Liyuan, a folk music singer who holds the rank of major general in the PLA — and who at that time was better known than her husband, who in 2006 was just a provincial party secretary.
Not pictured is Hu’s sister Muying who runs her own princeling organization, the Fellowship of Children of Yan’an, named after the city from which the communists launched their revolution in the 1930s.
On Saturday, at the fellowship’s reunion during China’s annual Spring Festival holiday, Muying urged her fellow princelings to get involved in "affairs of state" — and that they are, continuing the tradition of their ancestors. When the photo appeared on the website, the princelings were described as "brothers and sisters." At a December speech commemorating Mao’s 119th birthday, Hu described his "eyes welling with tears" when singing revolutionary songs. "We are Mao’s family members," he said.