Spotlight: The “Princeling” Generation

In the first of a three part series on China’s upcoming leadership transition, and with president-in-waiting Xi Jinping beginning his U.S. trip on Monday, NPR’s Louisa Lim explores the willingness of China’s next generation of leaders to reach a consensus on China’s future:

Another key question is how much internal unity there really is, given that the Communist Party is splintering into unofficial groupings. Xi Jinping is from the princeling faction — the children of the communist elite. The man tipped to be his premier, Li Keqiang, is from the more populist faction, who hail from humbler backgrounds and may have risen up through the Communist Youth League.

Brookings’ Li describes the new reality as “one party, two coalitions” — in other words, “populists versus elitists, or Communist Youth League versus princelings” — requiring leadership by consensus. Political analysts frequently cite Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party — in which the factionalization has become institutionalized — as an example of how China’s Communist Party could develop.

“You do see this kind of factional infighting become increasingly transparent, and Chinese society, Chinese intellectual community and Chinese leadership becoming more diversified or pluralistic,” says Li. “That’s a welcome development, but it also poses serious challenges.”

In Part 2 on Tuesday, Lim traces Xi’s princeling roots from his ancestral family home in Shaanxi province, where his father, Xi Zhongxun, suffered for many years amid China’s Mao-era political turmoil before rising as the architect of Deng Xiaoping’s special economic zones:

His son, Xi Jinping, also suffered: He was labeled a “reactionary student” when he was just 14 years old, according to the state-run Shaanxi Farmers’ Daily newspaper.

Despite that, the younger Xi — China’s current vice president — spent much of that time trying to join the very Communist Party that was persecuting his father, applying as many as 10 times before his application was accepted in 1974, according to the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, citing an article said to be written by Xi himself.

“At that time, if you want to have a career, you do need to have that ticket,” says Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explaining how joining the Communist Party was the only chance of social mobility in the political context of that era.

From age 15, Xi Jinping was sent to live in the countryside, spending seven years in a remote Shaanxi village, first as an ordinary farmer, then as a low-level official.

“He told Chinese official media many times that was his formative experience. He learned a lot of things: humanity, humility, adaptability and endurance,” Li says. “Certainly it also gave him a chance to understand rural China.”

See also a rundown of profiles published about Xi Jinping in the lead-up to his U.S. trip, and read more about the 5th generation of CCP leaders that he belongs to, known as “princelings,” via CDT.