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.