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When Maoists were trying to keep control of China in the 1970s, a powerful general from the south came to the aid of moderates, helping to arrest the radicals and throw them in jail. The bold actions of the general, Ye Jianying, paved the way for the country's move to a more market-oriented economy, and created a political dynasty that still plays kingmaker, able to influence national policy and protect its sprawling business empire in southern China long after his death.
The rise of so-called princelings like the Ye family reached a capstone this week, when Xi Jinping, himself the son of a Communist Party pioneer, was unveiled as China's top leader at the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress. Despite rising controversy over their prominent role in government and business - highlighted by recent corruption cases, as well as the fall of Bo Xilai, whose wife was found guilty of murder - China's princelings, who number in the hundreds, are emerging as an aristocratic class with an increasingly important say in ruling the country.
While they feud and fight among themselves, many have already made their mark in the established order, playing important roles in businesses, especially stateowned enterprises. Others are involved in finance or lobbying, where personal connections are important. "Many countries have powerful families, but in China, they are becoming the dominant force in politics and business, " said Lu Xiaobo, a political science professor at Columbia University. "In this system, they have good bloodlines. "
Many of the oldest among them - those now set to take power - share something else: an upbringing during some of China's most difficult years. Many were children during the Great Leap Forward, when upward of 30 million people died of famine from 1958 to 1962, and teenagers during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, a period many spent as outcasts or in exile after their parents were attacked by Maoist radicals.
"This is a volatile generation, one that didn't have a systematic education and often saw the worst side of the Communist revolution, " said a senior party journalist who grew up with some of China's princelings and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of pressure from China's security apparatus. "They've learned one thing, and that's all you can count on is your family. "
The princelings are distinct from the current top rulers of China, most of whom owe their allegiance to institutions in the Communist Party. The departing party general secretary, Hu Jintao, rose up through the Communist Youth League, one of the party's central bodies. Likewise, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who leaves office next year, is an organisation man with few outside sources of power.
Hu's legitimacy derives from being appointed by Deng Xiaoping, the last leader to have played a central role in the Chinese Revolution and a dominant figure until his death in 1997. Deng had a series of general secretaries and prime ministers whom he dismissed before settling on Jiang Zemin after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Later, he gave Hu the nod as Jiang's successor.
"Without a Deng to settle questions, you have competition for the top spots, " said an independent Chinese political commentator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is under police observation. "We don't have elections, and we don't have a system, so they go for the person with the most connections. "
That was evident five years ago when Xi was picked to be Hu's successor. Initially, the front-runner had been one of Hu's protêgês, Li Keqiang. But Xi won a higherranking slot, with the help of another princeling, Zeng Qinghong, then vice president and son of a minister.
Xi's career reflects his status. His father had been a senior party leader for half a century: military commissar, governor, vice prime minister and pioneer of market reforms, a background that helped create a network of support for Xi.
Li chiefly had his formal party affiliations and the backing of Hu, but no deeply rooted network of family power. That proved decisive when he had to compete with Xi for the top slot. (Li has replaced Wen as premier. )
Princelings are far from a uniform bloc. Many grew up in Beijing's "big yards", the sprawling housing compounds of the ministries and Party organisations that defined the capital in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Children of senior leaders studied and played together and, during the Cultural Revolution, fought each other.
Many of those tensions spill over today. Last year, the Ye family helped organise a meeting of princelings whose parents participated in the 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, the group of Maoists who had dominated politics in the last years of Mao Zedong's life and threatened to keep control after the dictator's death. With Xi's half sister taking notes, the Ye family and others met to criticise China's current direction.
But the meeting was divided over how far to push political changes. Those close to Hu Deping, the son of Hu Yaobang, the general secretary deposed by Deng in the 1980s, have been clamouring for a relaxation of the party's dominance over government and business. Others, including those in the Ye family, reflect their patriarch's belief in party control.
Those ties are extensive, especially in Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong, where some members of the Ye family ran into conflict with the province's party secretary, Wang Yang, who has preached against corruption and nepotism. The general's various family members have served as provincial governor, mayor of a special economic zone, head of an influential securities firm, founder of a real estate firm and chief executive of an industrial and media group. While Wang, the son of a labourer, has not investigated the Ye family or challenged its status, party insiders say he did not concern himself enough with its interests to satisfy the family. Starting last year, some family members began whispering that Wang was not politically reliable, according to party officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the information.
Xi's widespread contacts in the military and bureaucracy may allow him to act more vigorously than Hu. But some analysts caution that his connections could make bold action difficult. "There are a certain number of princelings who are benefiting from the system, " said Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing and the son of a minister of food under Mao. "So there are a number of them who don't want any change. "
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