Witnesses to Tiananmen Square struggle with what to tell their children
Tiananmen Square crackdown: Twenty-four years ago, on June 4, 1989, hundreds of Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators were killed when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to squash a six-week student-led protest.
By William Wan, Monday, June 3, 9:03 AM E-mail the writer
BEIJING — From a young age, Qi Zhiyong’s daughter asked him how he lost his leg.
To everyone else in the world, Qi always responded to the question with an unflinching, often angry, answer: He lost his left leg when soldiers fired on him and other unarmed civilians during protests at Tiananmen Square in one of modern history’s most brutal crackdowns.
But when his daughter asked, Qi choked back the words.
“I lost it in an accident,” he mumbled for years.
The lie, however, burned at him, he said.
In the 2 1/2 decades since the protests’ violent end, China’s government has largely scrubbed Tiananmen from history. Bullet holes on the streets of Beijing have long been patched over. The government has barred any independent inquiry and censored all mention online. Instead, Tiananmen Square has been reduced to a single euphemistic sentence in most school textbooks, making vague reference to “political turbulence in 1989.”
But for those who were part of the student-led protests against government repression and corruption, those dark morning hours of June 4, 1989, remain etched in memory and, in cases like Qi’s, on their bodies. That generation must now decide what to tell their children about that day, if anything at all.
For many, the decision is colored by how their own views have changed over time. In interviews with more than a dozen survivors, a few now wondered if the democratic cause they fought for was misguided by youthful passion. Others have won asylum abroad, and when they talk of Tiananmen to their children, it is as history — just one part of their life’s larger story.
But the dilemma is often more complicated for those who remain in China, where public mention of Tiananmen can result in government retribution. To this day, officials maintain that the decision was necessary for stability, and the anniversary is marked with thousands of police patrolling the square and chasing off journalists, while Internet forums are stripped of content.
Those who have found successful careers in business, law and academia often talk of it only in private, fearful of consequences for themselves and their offspring.
Even some of those who have soldiered on as activists deliberately say little of Tiananmen to their children, who grow up not fully understanding why police barge into their homes each year as the anniversary approaches to interrogate and spirit away their parents for weeks without explanation. Some children experience restrictions and warnings themselves at school.
For most parents, it comes down to a choice between protecting their children from the past or passing on dangerous and bitter truths about the authoritarian society they continue to live under.
It is something Qi and his wife have wrestled with throughout their 14-year-old daughter’s life. The two have fought so often and so heatedly on the subject that neither dares mention 1989 at home anymore.
‘The veil was lifted’
A 33-year-old construction worker at the time of the Tiananmen protests, Qi took a detour that night toward the central Beijing square with co-workers out of curiosity, not activism. Qi, who later converted to Christianity, now likens the moment troops fired without warning at the crowd around him to a baptism of sorts.
“The veil was lifted from my eyes, and I saw the party for what it really was,” he said.
In the hospital, he said, as doctors tried to salvage his bullet-torn left thigh, he took a purple antiseptic liquid and, to their chagrin, angrily scrawled on his leg: “This bullet belongs to the Communist Party’s army.”
After the amputation, he was forced to give up his construction job and has not found work since. By the time Qi Ji was born in 1998, her father had become a full-time activist, protesting the government’s maltreatment of the handicapped and democracy advocates, along with other human rights abuses.
Qi’s wife warned him early on: Say what you want about the government to everyone else, but Ji is too young. Why create problems for her, his wife argued, why poison her against the society she must live in?
“But I don’t think it’s a bad thing for her to understand this government,” Qi said on a recent afternoon while waiting for his daughter’s return from school. “I want her to be prepared to handle life and to face these problems. Why should we cover up the truth and let her live in illusion?”
For Qi, the Tiananmen crackdown — or June 4, as it is commonly referred to in China — has become the defining moment of his life.
While most people, including some former Tiananmen protesters, have learned to avoid the topic, Qi carries business cards listing his job title as “Disabled Victim of June 4.” His home telephone number, cellphone number and e-mail address end with deliberately chosen digits: “89 64.” And on the back of his cards, he has emblazoned this slogan: “Facts written in ink cannot conceal the truth written in blood.”
His family lives in a cramped Beijing apartment, dependent on his wife’s $320-a-month job as a drugstore sales assistant, while Qi cares for their daughter and supports human rights causes — work that has resulted in long stretches of detention and frequent government harassment.
Qi’s wife, Lu Shiying, wishes he would let go of what happened 24 years ago. She recently declined to meet with foreign journalists and warned Qi against it.
“How come others are able to move forward?” she often asks him, he said. “You were not the only victim on June Fourth.”
Kong Weizhen was also shot and lost the use of his left leg that night. But after seeing the danger and futility of his anti-government activism, he abandoned the opposition work that had brought him to the streets. Instead, he tried to make a new life for himself within the existing system.
He became a salesman and worked his way up to owning a computer store. He even tried in vain to join the Communist Party at one point — an attempt, he says, to increase his pay for the sake of his 12-year-old daughter.
“My family is now my first priority,” he explained in a phone interview. “There’s nothing to be gained from telling her about June 4. If I tell her, she may form some dangerous resentment against the party. . . . I just want her to have a safe and happy life.”
The only reason he would tell her, he said, is if another anti-government protest erupted. “If that happened, I would use my own example to teach her what such movements can accomplish and what they cannot. And I would ask her to get as far away as she can.”
But even those who have devoted their lives to fighting for the democratic ideals of 1989 disagree on how much to tell their children. Many of them form the core of China’s dissident community.
“I don’t want my children to know,” said Zhang Lin, a rights activist in Anhui province who has spent many years in jail on state subversion charges.
In February, authorities pulled his 10-year-old daughter, Anni, from school as an apparent punishment to her father. The incident spurred dozens of other activists to stage a hunger strike in front of the school. Weeks later, Anni was allowed to resume class, but only in another town far away.
His daughter now loses her temper easily, Zhang said, and has become obsessed with cartoons in which the good guys beat up the bad. “I don’t want my children to follow the same path as me,” he said.
In a phone interview, his daughter said, “I don’t know why the police keep coming,” though she knows it’s related somehow to her father.
When asked about June 4, she responded: “What is June 4? I haven’t heard anything about it.”
‘I have no regrets’
Qi said he doesn’t begrudge other parents their personal decisions, but he worries that staying silent contributes to the gradual purge of China’s collective memory.
To this day, he said, his amputated stump hurts whenever he hears the crack of fireworks. He avoids passing Tiananmen Square, he said, because he tastes blood whenever he gets too close.
In the end, suppressing all mention of June 4 in front of his daughter proved impossible. And after his daughter turned 10, a teacher made passing reference to the date while talking about the physical space of Tiananmen Square.
That night, with Qi’s wife still at work, his daughter mentioned it to him, and the memories poured out. The clacking advance of tanks. The shocking sound of gunfire. The blood he saw all around him and the sudden pain and darkness.
In the years that followed, he secretly told her more and more. They watched banned videos about that day on overseas Web sites. They talked about the party and its instinct for self-preservation.
He watched both proud and pained as June 4 began to color her worldview as it had his.
She became both more rebellious and more mature, he said. Like her parents, she now refers to the police watching their home as “dogs,” but she accepts without questioning when school leaders exclude her from trips abroad and from student parades at Tiananmen celebrating China’s communist rule.
Lately, she’s talked of becoming a kindergarten teacher so she can teach kids how to think for themselves about what’s right and wrong.
“All parents want their children to live a happy life, but I have no regrets about telling her,” Qi said. “Only after she first tastes the bitter can she know what the sweet is.”
Qi’s wife now knows that her daughter knows. But recently, the family reached a kind of detente — similar to the one in Chinese society at large. When together at home these days, they simply avoid all mention of Tiananmen Square, June 4 and what happened that day 24 years ago.
Will Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ include the rule of law?
By Fred Hiatt, Monday, June 3, 8:19 AM E-mail the writer
As he accepted the Communist Party’s designation to be China’s president and supreme military leader in March, Xi Jinping vowed “to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Xi’s speech to the National People’s Congress won plaudits from the press. “His crisp yet rich voice and frank yet resolute gaze revealed a power to invigorate the people,” the China People’s Daily reported.
But the speech left analysts guessing about what sort of rejuvenation — also translated as “revival” or “renaissance” — the new leader has in mind. Presumably President Obama will be looking for clues when he meets with Xi later this week in California.
Does Xi mean a “Chinese dream” of prosperity, as the “American dream” is often interpreted — a promise to continue the historic progress of the past three decades in moving people from poverty into the middle class? Does he have in mind a campaign against the widespread corruption and growing inequality of wealth that rankles many Chinese? Or is he focused on raising China’s influence and profile beyond its borders? He has hinted at all three possibilities.
Many prominent scholars, the Economist magazine recently reported, signed a petition urging China to rejuvenate based on the rule of law — placing the constitution higher than arbitrary one-party rule.
A turn in that direction could help with all three “revival” goals. Dictators from Stalin to South Korea’s Park Chung-hee have managed to wrench their nations from abject poverty to mid-level industrialization, but further growth — escape from the *“middle-income trap” that worries many Chinese officials — almost always is accompanied by political liberalization.
An independent judiciary would tame corruption more effectively than periodic purges and Communist Party disciplinary campaigns. And China would win more friends abroad, and drive fewer neighbors into the shelter of U.S. alliance, by respecting international norms than through bullying.
Alas, there is little evidence so far that Xi is tempted in the direction of constitutionalism. While he has, like past leaders, mentioned democracy as an eventual goal, he also has said, “The Chinese dream is an ideal. Communists should have a higher ideal, and that is communism.” When the People’s Daily posted an online survey about the “Chinese dream,” about 80 percent of respondents said they did not support one-party rule — and the survey was quickly taken down.
Xi is still settling in, though; he himself may not be entirely sure what direction he will take. While his choices will be determined primarily by internal factors, global perceptions and responses will matter, too. That makes it even more important than usual for Obama to explain why mutually beneficial U.S.-China relations would be served by Chinese respect for the rule of law.
Obama should make clear, for example, that when Chinese officials promise their U.S. counterparts that human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng can emigrate with no adverse consequences to his relatives, and then those relatives are arrested, beaten and harassed, U.S. trust is affected.
When a longtime resident of North America, democracy advocate Wang Bingzhang, is lured to a meeting on the Vietnam-China border, kidnapped by Chinese security agents and thrown into solitary confinement in a remote prison — that affects perceptions, too. (Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in Wang’s case, having become friends with his daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, and written a novel for young adults inspired in part by his story.)
And when a literary critic such as Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobois imprisoned for peaceful advocacy of free speech — and his wife is put under house arrest with no due process — outsiders have to doubt the confidence that Chinese officials claim to feel in their model of governance and development.
Here’s something else Obama might say: No country is likely to win respect for greatness if it lives in fear of citizens like Chen, Wang and Liu. Nor is “rejuvenation” likely to be more than a slogan unless it is built on the principle that all three men spoke for — the principle of rule of law.
John Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Post, is writing a book on the history of interactions between Americans and Chinese.
The past two months in China have revealed something profound about the outsized expectations that China and the United States have for each other and the often-feeble returns on what many call the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
Many Chinese place the United States on a pedestal that looms even higher from the capital of a nation facing a deep crisis in belief. The Chinese vest the United States with a moral authority that Americans are flattered by but are often loath to accept. For its part, the United States, in need of a hand around the globe, wants China to start acting like a superpower. But the Chinese — for tactical reasons or otherwise — reject the responsibilities inherent in big-power status even as they, too, are beguiled by the attention.
Ever since aggressive young U.S. merchants first washed up on China’s shores and earned the sobriquet “the new people,” the two sides have expected great things from each other. But over the 229 years that Americans and Chinese have interacted, they have rarely been satisfied. And yet irrationally, almost magnetically, they keep coming back to each other for more.
The current cycle began in February, when the first of two very different Chinese men sought shelter in a U.S. diplomatic outpost. The first one, Wang Lijun, is a policeman famed for his brutality but also known as someone who had run afoul of his political godfather — once one of the most powerful men in China, Bo Xilai. On Feb. 6, Wang left Chongqing, where he had overseen a reign of terror against Bo’s enemies, and drove 200 miles to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. There, Wang requested protection because he feared for his life. He apparently had been investigating Bo’s wife in connection with the murder of a British businessman. The upshot of Wang’s day-long stay in the consulate sent shock waves through China’s political hierarchy. Bo was purged from the party. His wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested. And the Americans handed Wang back to the Chinese.
Why did Wang seek U.S. help after laboring for years in the belly of a system that, according to its internal documents and even some public speeches, views the United States as an “enemy”? For the same reason that many of China’s leaders park their children in U.S. universities and their money in U.S. real estate. Political correctness in China disallows expressions of admiration, affection, respect and unity of purpose with the United States; officials make them at their peril. But these constraints mask a more complicated reality. Chinese remain moved by America. So while apparatchiks toe the party line, privately they still want their children at Harvard, cluck at an American-born grandson (as did China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiao*ping) or run — when there’s no place to hide — to the U.S. Consulate.
Predictably, Wang was not granted any form of protection. But his gambit might have saved his life, and it definitely altered the course of China’s upcoming political transition. When U.S. officials handed Wang back, they gave him to an official of the Ministry of State Security from Beijing. If Wang had stayed in Chongqing, chances are he would have died with his story.
Then there is the tale of the second man. For years, Chen Guangcheng has been on the receiving end of the attention of men like Wang Lijun. Chen is a blind lawyer who has represented clients forcibly sterilized by officials carrying out China’s one-child policy. For those “crimes,” he has been jailed, kidnapped and beaten. He was released from prison in September 2010, only to be held in Shandong province by a team of police and local thugs in a makeshift jail. There were no charges against him, but that did not matter. The security services in China are all-powerful; their budget is bigger than that of China’s military.
Last month Chen escaped and made his way to Beijing. Where was the safest place for a human rights lawyer on the lam from a gang of toughs? And who could best guarantee his security in China going forward? Again the answer was a U.S. diplomatic facility.
The he-said, she-said of the negotiations between China and the United States over Chen’s fate are still being reported. Did U.S. officials rush the talks so they would not interfere with the annual economic and trade talks opening this week in Beijing?
That forum, by the way, is a testimony to the exaggerated U.S. expectations for China. By grouping hundreds of officials from the bureaucracies of both sides, it seems more like an exercise to convince China of its importance than a meeting with any practical utility. Did U.S. officials somehow apologize to the Chinese — an act that the Beijing government demanded publicly but that would privately sadden many of those same officials?
One thing is clear. Once Chen left the U.S. Embassy to seek medical treatment, he had second thoughts. Perhaps he should have requested asylum, he told reporters. Despite a deal that he would be protected from the goons who have menaced his family, he is on his own if he ends up staying in his own country. Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s point man on Asia, told reporters that an incident such as Chen’s would not happen again, but given Chinese expectations about America, that seems hard to guarantee.
Making China keep its promise to dissident Chen Guangcheng
By Editorial Board, Published: May 13
JUST A WEEK or so ago, we raised the question on this page about whether the Chinese would keep their promise to investigate abuses against the family of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident lawyer who escaped from his illegal home detention in Shandong province last year, was sheltered briefly in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and eventually came to New York. We also questioned the commitment of the United States to keep the pressure on China to honor its pledge at the time Mr. Chen left the embassy and the country.
Mr. Chen lamented to us recently that neither side is living up to its promises. He said that his relatives continue to be harassed in China, with beer bottles and bricks thrown at their houses, cars vandalized and posters put up accusing them of treason. Some relatives were also told by prosecutors that they would be criminally charged. Mr. Chen felt these actions were intended to silence his potent criticism of human rights in China.
On May 9, China delivered a new punch to the gut. According to Bob Fu of ChinaAid, who has been deeply involved with the case, Mr. Chen’s older brother, Chen Guangfu, was riding a motorbike at 9:45 a.m., about two miles from his home, when he was stopped by a black car without a license plate. Two men got out of the car and beat him and wrecked the motorbike. The beating was near a police station in Mengyin county of Shandong province. Chen Guangfu immediately reported the incident to the police, but they have taken no action to find the assailants.
The beating seems to be a defiant message that China could not care less about the promises made last year to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This kind of beating does not happen without the instigation and approval of higher officials; it suggests that China is far more determined to intimidate Mr. Chen than to honor any pledge made to Washington. Thugs beating up a brother on a lonely country road sends a message loud and clear.
Last Thursday, acting deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said “we remain deeply concerned” about reports of continued harassment of the family and the beating of Chen’s brother. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a written protest to Foreign Minister Wang Yi about the beating. Such a response suggests the United States isn’t going to make a public fuss.
Often in managing a relationship as complex as the United States and China, it pays dividends to balance conflicting imperatives — security, economics, human rights and politics, among other things. But there are also times when the United States ought to stand up and shout that something is amiss. This is one of those moments. Some forceful, public comments by Mr. Kerry and President Obama might ease the Chen family’s nightmare at the hands of thugs, and remind China’s leaders that their promises should not be simply crumpled up and discarded whenever they feel like it.
Chinese communist leaders denounce U.S. values but send children to U.S. colleges
Xi Jinping is the heir apparent to lead China’s Communist Party. His daughter is at Harvard University.
By Andrew Higgins and Maureen Fan, Published: May 19, 2012 E-mail the writer
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When scholars gathered at Harvard last month to discuss the political tumult convulsing China’s ruling Communist Party, a demure female undergraduate with a direct stake in the outcome was listening intently from the top row of the lecture hall. She was the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent for the party’s top job.
Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingze, enrolled at Harvard University in 2010, under what people who know her there say was a fake name, joining a long line of Chinese “princelings,” as the offspring of senior party officials are known, who have come to the United States to study.
In some ways, the rush to U.S. campuses by the party’s “red nobility” simply reflects China’s national infatuation with American education. China has more students at U.S. colleges than in any other foreign country. They numbered 157,558 in the 2010-11 academic year, according to data compiled by the Institute of International Education — up nearly fourfold in 15 years.
But the kin of senior party officials are a special case: They rarely attend state schools but congregate instead at top-tier — and very expensive — private colleges, a stark rejection of the egalitarian ideals that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme decision-making body of a Communist Party steeped in anti-American rhetoric, at least five have children or grandchildren who have studied or are studying in the United States.
Helping to foster growing perceptions that the party is corrupt is a big, unanswered question raised by the foreign studies of its leaders’ children: Who pays their bills? Harvard, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and living expenses over four years, refuses to discuss the funding or admission of individual students.
Grandchildren of two of the party’s last three top leaders — Zhao Ziyang, who was purged and placed under house arrest for opposing the military assault on Tiananmen Square protesters in June 1989, and his successor, Jiang Zemin — studied at Harvard.
The only prominent princeling to address the question of funding publicly is Bo Guagua, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His father is the now-disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who, like Xi Jinping, is the son of an early revolutionary leader who fought alongside Mao Zedong.
Bo Guagua did not attend the seminar at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, which focused on his family’s travails. But in a statement sent a few days later to Harvard’s student-run newspaper, the Crimson, he responded to allegations of ill-
gotten wealth. He said he had never used his family name to make money and, contrary to media reports, had never driven a Ferrari. Funding for his overseas studies, he said, came entirely from unspecified “scholarships earned independently, and my mother’s generosity from the savings she earned from her years as a successful lawyer and writer.”
His mother, Gu Kailai, is in detention somewhere in China on suspicion of involvement in the death of Neil Heywood, a Briton who served as a business adviser to the Bo family. After what Chinese authorities say was a falling-out over money, Heywood was found dead, apparently poisoned, in a Chongqing hotel room in November.
Bo Guagua “is very worried about what might happen to his mother,” said Ezra F. Vogel, a Harvard professor who said he had received a visit from a “very anxious” Bo last week. Bo’s image as a wild playboy, Vogel added, is “greatly exaggerated.”
In China’s “dog-eat-dog” political culture, Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar told the Fairbank Center seminar, the family is both “a wealth-generating unit” and a “form of general protection.” As a result, he added, “you have a party that is seen as deeply corrupt.”
Before his ouster, Bo Xilai had an official annual salary of less than $20,000. But his son attended Harrow School, an exclusive private academy in London with annual fees of about $48,000; then Oxford, which, for overseas students, costs more than $25,000 a year just in tuition; and the Kennedy School, which, according to its own estimates, requires about $70,000 a year to cover tuition and living expenses.
‘Top of the food chain’
“This is about haves and have-nots,” said Hong Huang, the stepdaughter of Mao’s foreign minister Qiao Guanhua and a member of an earlier generation of American-educated princelings. “China’s old-boy network . . . is no different from America’s old-boy network,” said Hong, who went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and whose mother served as Mao’s English teacher.
“There is something about elitism that says if you are born in the right family, you have to go to the right school to perpetuate the glory of the family. Going to an elite college is a natural extension of that,” said Hong, now a Beijing-based style guru and publisher. Among her ventures is iLook, an edgy fashion and lifestyle magazine that offers tips on how to enjoy what a 2010 cover story proclaimed as China’s “Gilded Age.”
Noting that the Communist Party has drifted far from its early ideological moorings, Hong said she sees no contradiction between the desire for an Ivy League education and the current principles of the ruling party and its leaders: “What part of China is communist, and what part of Harvard is against elitist authoritarianism?”
Hong’s stepfather, Qiao, was purged as foreign minister in 1976 and his ministerial post passed to Mao’s former interpreter, Huang Hua, whose son, Huang Bin, also went to Harvard. At the time, China’s education system lay in ruins, wrecked by the *1966-76 Cultural Revolution and Mao’s vicious campaigns against intellectuals, who were reviled as the “stinking ninth category.”
Today, Chinese universities have not only recovered but become so fiercely competitive that getting into them is difficult even for well-connected princelings. Even so, top American universities still carry more cachet among many in China’s political and business elite, in part because they are so expensive. A degree from Harvard or the equivalent ranks as “the ultimate status symbol” for China’s elite, said Orville Schell, a Harvard graduate and director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“There is such a fascination with brand names” in China that “just as they want to wear Hermes or Ermenegildo Zegna, they also want to go to Harvard. They think this puts them at the top of the food chain,” Schell said.
The attraction of a top-brand university is so strong that some princelings flaunt even tenuous affiliations with a big-name American college. Li Xiaolin, the daughter of former prime minister and ex-Politburo member Li Peng, for example, has long boasted that she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a “visiting scholar at the Sloan Business School.” MIT says the only record it has of attendance by a student with Li’s name was enrollment in a “non-degree short course” open to executives who have “intellectual curiosity” and are ready to spend $7,500 for just 15 days of classes.
The welfare of princelings studying abroad can become a matter for the Chinese government.
During his final year at Oxford University in England, Bo Guagua ran into trouble because of inattention to his studies. When the university initiated a disciplinary process against him, the Chinese Embassy in London sent a three-person diplomatic delegation to Oxford to discuss the matter with Bo’s tutor at Balliol College, according to an academic who was involved in the episode and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak candidly. The embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The embassy trio pleaded on Bo’s behalf, stressing that education is very important to the Chinese, the academic said. The tutor replied that Bo should, in that case, learn to study more and party less. The intervention by Chinese diplomats didn’t help Bo and, in December 2008, he was “rusticated” for failing to produce academic work of an adequate standard, an effective suspension that, under Oxford regulations, meant he lost his “right of access” to all university facilities. Barred from college housing, Bo moved into a pricey local hotel. He was, however, allowed to take a final examination in 2010. Despite his banishment from classes, he performed well and received a degree.
“He was a bright student,” said the Oxford academic, who knew Bo Guagua at the time. But “in Oxford, he was suddenly freer than anything he had experienced before and, like a good many young people in similar circumstances, it was like taking the cork out of a bottle of champagne.”
Most other princelings have kept a far lower profile.
On the manicured, sun-drenched grounds of Stanford University in Silicon Valley, Jasmine Li — whose grandfather, Jia Qinglin, ranks fourth in the Politburo and has made speeches denouncing “erroneous” Western ways — blends in seamlessly with fellow American undergraduates.
Photographs have appeared online showing her wearing a black-and-white Carolina Herrera gown at a Paris debutante ball in 2010, and she shares with Bo Guagua a taste for horse riding. As a freshman last year, she rode with the Stanford Equestrian team.
But her presence on campus is low-key, like that of Xi’s daughter at Harvard, whom fellow students describe as studious and discreet. Li rides a shiny red bicycle to and from classes, has an American roommate and joined a sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. She often studies after class in the sorority house’s high-ceilinged living room alongside fellow members.
Reached at her sorority, Li declined to comment on her time in the United States or her ambitions, saying, in unaccented English, that she needed to consult first with her family in China.
‘Achilles’ heel for the party’
The stampede to American campuses has delivered a propaganda gift to critics of the Communist Party, which drapes itself in the Chinese flag and regularly denounces those who question its monopoly on power as traitorous American lackeys. A widespread perception that members of the party elite exploit their access and clout to stash their own children and also money overseas “is a big Achilles’ heel for the party,” said Harvard’s MacFarquhar.
Bitter foes of the ruling party such as the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong have reveled in spreading sometimes unfounded rumors about privileged party children. New Tang Dynasty TV, part of a media empire operated by Falun Gong, reported, for example, that 74.5 percent of the children of current and retired minister-level Chinese officials have acquired either green cards or U.S. citizenship. The rate for their grandchildren is 91 percent, said the TV station, citing an anonymous Chinese blog posting that in turn cited supposed official U.S. statistics. No government agency has issued any such statistics.
Though of dubious accuracy, the report stirred a storm of outrage on the Internet, with Twitter-like micro-blogs denouncing the hypocrisy of the party elite. Most of the comments were quickly deleted by China’s army of Internet censors. But a few survived, with one complaining that officials “curse American imperialism and capitalism all the time but their wives and children have already emigrated to the U.S. to be [American] slaves.”
Symbol of excess
Similar fury greeted photographs that showed Bo Guagua cavorting at parties with Western women at a time when his father was promoting a neo-Maoist revival in Chongqing and urging the city’s 33 million residents to reconnect with the austere values of the party’s early years.
Bo, a poster boy for princeling excess, stopped attending classes this spring and last month moved out of a serviced apartment building with a uniformed doorman near Harvard Yard. (Rents there range from $2,300 to $3,000 a month.) People who know him at Harvard say he had earlier split up with his girlfriend, fellow Harvard student Sabrina Chen, the granddaughter of Chen Yun, a powerful party baron. Before his death in 1995, Chen took a hard line against the “infiltration” of Western values and, along with Bo Guagua’s grandfather, Bo Yibo, pressed for a military crackdown against student protesters who gathered in Tiananmen Square around a plaster statue inspired by the Statue of Liberty.
The cook at a fast-food eatery near his Cambridge apartment building said Bo Guagua used to come in regularly but didn’t make much of an impression. “He just ordered the usual stuff, BLTs. Nothing special,” said the cook, who gave his name as Mustafa.
Staff at Changsho, a Chinese restaurant, however, remember a more extravagant customer. Late one evening, for example, Bo came in alone, ordered four dishes and left after barely touching the food. “He didn’t even ask for a doggie bag,” recalled a restaurant worker, appalled at the waste.
Fan and special correspondent Yawen Chen reported from Palo Alto, Calif.
President Xi Jinping is pressing the Communist Party's elite to cut back on lavish living amid growing public resentment. The economic effect is far-reaching.
By Don Lee, Los Angeles Times
May 19, 2013, 8:38 p.m.
BEIJING — Exports of elegant Swiss watches to China have plunged. Sales of Mercedes-Benz and other premium sedans are slowing. And high-end restaurants, coming off their worst Chinese New Year festival in years, are starting to change their menus to lure ordinary families.
At a Montblanc shop in downtown Beijing, sales clerks recall the days when they rang up as many as 10 of the top-selling fountain pens every day. And never mind the $1,400 price tag: The platinum-plated pen capped with a half-carat diamond was a particular favorite. Nowadays the store sells one such pen every two to three days, said a saleswoman surnamed Ren, adding sadly that her pay is commission-based.
Such is the state of living large in the world's second-largest luxury market. Yet the cause of the downturn is not economic — it is political.
In the last few months, China's new leader, President Xi Jinping, has been pressing a campaign to rein in the lavish ways of the nation's political and military elite. Warning that corruption could threaten the Communist Party's survival, Xi has waged a highly public effort to rid officialdom of ostentatious living.
Ceremonial red carpets and floral decor are out. Flying coach is in. Party cadres are being told to double up in hotel rooms.
And in what has become a particular crowd pleaser with the public, Beijing is going after those who have long abused the privileges of military license plates, which almost guarantee immunity from traffic laws and other such inconveniences.
It's a much-debated question here whether this wide-ranging campaign is aimed at the root causes of corruption and income inequality, or only addressing the most visible symptoms. Whichever the case, Xi and his lieutenants have good reason for their frugality program.
Beijing has long maintained control in part by tacitly promising that over time everyone will benefit from the country's new wealth. Rampant corruption and the garish displays of affluence by senior officials and their families strike at the heart of Beijing's promise that it is working to make life better for all. Ordinary Chinese, often through microblogs and other social media, have increasingly lashed out at what they see as a privileged class of political elites.
Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese governance at Claremont McKenna College, thinks Xi has two objectives with his anticorruption program: "To appease the Chinese public to show that he has heard their voice … [and] to tell officials throughout the system that the new leadership has absolute authority."
Whatever the government's purpose, the campaign has affected spending on all kinds of high-end goods and services. Some analysts blame Xi's crackdown for China's disappointing economic growth in the first quarter, which has brought financial pain to many workers.
The repercussions of the austerity drive aren't just domestic. Official visits sponsored by government entities to the United States and other countries are rapidly declining, according to travel industry sources. That is sure to be felt by California, a popular destination among the Chinese.
Most purveyors of luxury goods in China are sitting tight for now, betting that the freeze will end soon.
"I still believe that gift-giving, as long as it is not conspicuous, will remain an important behavior in China," said Pierre Coppere, chairman of distiller Pernod Ricard Asia, reassuring analysts recently after a double-digit drop in revenue from sales of Scotch whiskey during the Chinese New Year period.
Gift-giving is a way of life for many Chinese businesses and bureaucrats, as are bribes. Over the years, Communist Party officials have found plenty of ways to pocket gains from land sales, hiring and operation of businesses on the side.
In many cases, the extravagant spending comes from official entertainment funds. Even though the party's manuals spell out standards for purchases in detailed fashion — specifying, for example, the maximum engine size that each level of government can buy for its fleet — the regulations have seldom been enforced.
Civil servants earn modest incomes — no more than $850 a month for a mid-level central government official, some state media reports say — but many have spruced up their lifestyles by traveling first class, dining at premium restaurants and holding lavish ceremonies, all on the taxpayers' dime. Officials charged an estimated $57 billion worth of expenses on about 10 million government-issued credit cards last year, according to Emerging Asia Group, a research firm in Shanghai.
Xi has made examples of officials who have been publicly criticized, fired or prosecuted, mostly at low levels of government, for using taxpayer money on banquets and trips, for example, or keeping a public vehicle for personal use.
It's less clear how effective he has been in going after flagrant cases of corruption in the upper ranks of power, although last week, the deputy head of China's main economic planning agency, Liu Tienan, was dismissed amid allegations that he had colluded with a private business for personal gain.
State-run media reported that in the first quarter of the year, there were more than 3,600 prosecutions of corruption involving $87.5 million. Those numbers put Xi on pace to outdo his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who also sought to clean up the party in his first year in office, in 2003. But the quarterly report didn't break down the cases by levels of government. Though Xi's crusade has already gone on longer and been more sweeping than those of his predecessors, many experts think the frugality fervor won't last. Once the campaign ends, they say, officials who are lying low will probably go back to their old ways.
Beyond that, Xi's actions do little to address what most see as the root of the problem: a lack of public accountability.
"At the end of the day, all this is a charade," said Pei, of Claremont McKenna.
Zhang Ming, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing, said the key was "whether they're willing to set some hard rules and allow independent supervision." So far, he said, "there aren't any signs that the government is planning to bring that kind of change."
Other Chinese scholars are a little more hopeful, saying Xi's campaign is pushing against an endemic political culture and that it will take time for things to change.
During nearly three decades, Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School, had grown accustomed to lavish meals at official meetings, with cigarettes, wine and fruit always on the table. But at a party lunch last month, she said, everybody was served two dishes and a bowl of soup, cafeteria-style. They got little else except for a bottle of mineral water, and were instructed to take the bottle home if not finished.
When the meeting adjourned, Lin wasn't given a sweater or some other souvenir as before, just a stack of reading material. "They told us to empty and clean our plates."
Lin says the frugality campaign's effect on the national economy shows how much China's rapid growth was being fueled by a corruption bubble. Restaurants and other businesses should "improve the quality and grow by competition and development, not by relying on corruption," she said.
The actual effect of political austerity on the Chinese economy is hard to measure. China's catering and hotel business, for example, accounted for just 2% of the economy in 2010, the latest year for which such data are available.
At the same time, the government sector represents a huge consuming force. Roughly 10 million people hold administrative positions at nearly 400,000 central and local government units, with tens of millions more working at public schools, hospitals and state-owned enterprises.
Some officials complain that Xi's campaign, while good for the economy in the long run, is having the opposite effect at the moment, hampering efforts to bolster domestic consumption.
What's more, some have responded to the crackdown by taking their spending underground, with state media citing reports of lavish sauna-bath receptions held in farmyards and officials drinking premium liquor disguised in mineral water bottles.
Even merchants know how to play the game.
At a Gucci shop in Beijing recently, a saleswoman showed off a $1,500 handbag for men, boasting its Florence-made leather imprinted with the brand's double-G logo. Asked whether it would make a good gift for someone in government, she demurred, pointing instead to another model decidedly more understated but nearly as expensive.
"I don't know if this is suitable," she said. "The logo is too obvious."
BEIJING—The former mayor of Beijing who was believed to have played a prominent role in the Tiananmen crackdown died at the weekend, it was reported Tuesday, 24 years after the military repression.
Chen Xitong died in Beijing on Sunday at 9:54 a.m., according to the Hong Kong China News Agency, an outlet linked to the state-run China News Service.
Chen fell from grace in one of China’s biggest political scandals and was widely seen as the official who pushed for the use of military force against the student-led protests in the heart of the capital.
He was sentenced to 16 years in jail on corruption charges in 1998, but won medical parole in 2006, according to the HKCNA report.
He died aged 84, the report said, shortly before his jail sentence would have ended had it been fully served.
His political downfall came after he was promoted to Communist Party secretary of Beijing and made a member on the all-powerful Politburo, China’s de facto ruling body.
His rise in the party was widely seen as a reward for his role in the Tiananmen episode.
Chen said he was “sorry” for the tragedy and that the deaths could have been avoided in an interview contained in a book released last year titled “Conversations with Chen Xitong.”
He also attempted to shift the blame, saying he was merely acting on orders from the top leadership.
But Zhao Ziyang, the former communist party secretary who was purged and held under house arrest following the protests after he sympathized with students, blamed Chen for the tragedy in his memoir.
Other senior figures within the Communist Party also said Chen was one of the masterminds of the crackdown.
The report of his death emerged as tens of thousands of Hong Kongers attended a candlelight vigil marking the 24th anniversary of the crackdown, as Beijing blocked commemoration attempts.
The Chinese Communist Party branded the Tiananmen protests a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were killed in the June 3-4 onslaught in Beijing in 1989.