The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, by Kerry Brown

Seven men rule the Middle Kingdom, but why them? Jonathan Mirsky on a study of Party potentates

July 3, 2014

Mao Zedong spoke scornfully of Chinese leaders who imagined that, just as no one would “touch the backside of a tiger”, they were beyond criticism. In his indispensable study of China’s present leaders, Kerry Brown, a former first secretary in Britain’s Beijing embassy, does more than touch the backsides of a tiny group of tigers, the seven newest members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee who rule China: he skins them alive. Were a Chinese citizen to have managed to publish this well-documented and clearly written study of the “ruthlessly successful multi-national corporation” that is the Communist Party of China and the leaders whose money, contacts, relatives and women have propelled them to the top, he would now be serving a long prison sentence for “subversion and the disclosure of state secrets”.

Here is Brown’s big question: on 15 November 2012, as he sat in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Beijing watching on television the public unveiling of the Standing Committee headed by the new president, Xi Jinping, he wondered “why, out of the 84 million members of the Party, of the 2,0 ‘high-level cadre’ band, of the 350 members of the Central Committee, and of the 14 or so eligible members of the Politburo…from 2007 to 2012, Xi was the chosen one?” This is an especially interesting question, he notes, because in 1997 Xi failed to become a member of the 167-member Central Committee, coming last in the ballot, and squeaking in as a mere alternate. In a brilliant insight, Brown says he noticed, as he sat absorbed by what was unfolding on the screen, that “I was surrounded by people who evidently felt that the whole process was so unimportant and disengaging that they didn’t even glance at the attention-hogging screen, even though it was likely to impact on them directly…everyone around me regarded this as a major non-event”. (I contrast this with the scene I watched on television in a similar Beijing hotel not long after Mao died, when his intimates, the Gang of Four that included his widow, Jiang Qing, were on trial. The hotel staff, transfixed, shouted abuse at the screen.)

More important is where candidates served as they rose through the hierarchy, and how their fathers survived the Maoist decades

Brown discloses something about his own background that is both relevant and surprising. When he began to work for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he attended a course on working for ministers that focused not only on the ministers and their senior colleagues and advisers, but also on “the members of their families, their friends from the past, their relatives” trying to get access to their time and attention. But, he emphasises, while “ministers of the British government system have power…it is minuscule compared to that of a Politburo member in contemporary China”.

Brown argues that, in contrast, China’s leaders operate in much denser networks of connections; a group about the size of a “small village”, they work together, constantly meet, “do whatever socializing they can together and also tend to have sex together…through networks of lovers and intimate physical friendships”. Even their spoken language differs from the demotic of ordinary people. Four of the seven new members of the all-male Standing Committee are “princelings” – glossed as “a cohesive group of current leaders who have family links going back to early generations of elite figures” in post-revolutionary China – although Brown contends that too much can be made of this. More important is where candidates served as they rose through the Party’s hierarchy, what universities they attended, which posts they held, whom they had to please, and how their fathers survived the Maoist decades.

Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was once close to Mao, but he was shelved and internally exiled for so long that neither father nor son could be accused of bad deeds during the late Maoist period. The younger Xi was never a Red Guard, let alone in a faction, which is the kind of history that would require a lot of explaining years later when manoeuvring for high position. His career steps included doctoral study at Tsinghua University, serving as private secretary to Geng Biao in the Central Military Commission, and then holding important posts in Hebei and Fujian provinces, becoming governor in the latter. Brown quotes an authority who observes that “the road to the highest levels of party leadership lay through the provinces”. Making your career in Beijing, as did former premier Wen Jiabao, is rare.

Like all Chinese leaders back as far as I can recall, Xi has made much of the need to eliminate corruption among high-level officials. It is Brown’s treatment of the scale of this cancer, and the unlikeliness that it will be eliminated, that will be focused on by readers outside China – and inside, too, after it is inevitably smuggled into the country and on to its irreverent and now nearly impossible-to-police internet. The two characteristics of elite Party members that the Party hates being exposed are their wealth and the brutality of the organisation in which they have achieved riches and power. The fact is, Brown says bluntly, “the Party itself, self-appointed savior and liberator of the Chinese, also visited calamities on the people it was meant to protect and take to a better life”. Not only must the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests be obscured, but also the bloodiness of the entire Maoist project, beginning in the early 1950s with the killing of 2 million “counterrevolutionaries”.

So if being a princeling is not the best super-fuel for a flight to the very top, what is? Here Brown spells out the centrality – albeit not for Xi – of being a descendant of one of the “Eight Immortals”, a group including Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Bo Yibo and five cronies. Drawing on disclosures and analysis by Bloomberg – which cost some journalists at Bloomberg and The New York Times their visas – Brown observes that by 2012, when the new leadership group under Xi emerged, of the 103 descendants of the Immortals, 23 had been educated in the US, 12 had property there, and 43 were heavily involved in their own and other people’s companies. Even Deng does not escape close scrutiny here. His famous insistence on letting a few get rich first was soon translated by wags into “First of all, let the family of Deng get rich”. In the so-called “reformist period”, it was the family of Wen whose avarice “appeared most out of control”; as for Xi, Brown notes, his sister and others close to him have become very wealthy.

In Xi’s denunciations of high-level graft, Brown concludes in one of his most telling phrases, “there are no signs of someone who is willing to take risks, to spell out more difficult options, and to deploy their rhetorical gifts to mobilize and challenge their audience”. Secluded from ordinary life as he crawled up the Party’s perilous pole towards political heaven, Xi probably had little accurate knowledge of China’s “wider discontent and a strong sense of expectations frustrated…Suicide, depression, and mental illness are now becoming part of the landscape of urban and increasingly rural life in China.” Small wonder, then, that the Chinese audience watching television as President Xi led out the covey of men who would now rule China paid the event such scant attention.

The author

“I was born and raised in Kent, and attended a state grammar school there,” says Kerry Brown, previously head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House and now professor of Chinese politics and executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “This has given me a strong independent viewpoint, and one in which on the whole I am deeply suspicious of different sorts of establishments and elites - particularly ones I might be a member of!”

He swapped England for Australia two years ago when he took up his present post, and observes: “I suppose this is the endpoint of globalisation. I am from the UK, run a major project for the European Union, deal with China, and live in Australia! I have finally become globally homeless.” 

“Sydney is a wholly different environment. It is the world’s most naturally beautiful city, but the university is far vaster than Chatham House. I maintain a deep affection for Chatham House, but the perspective I get in Sydney is a very different and refreshing one. So I am very glad I moved there, and have now become wholly deracinated!”

Brown’s route to his field of study was circuitous. “I was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, and studied philosophy and English. I only learned two decades later that of the degrees Cambridge issues, 70 per cent are in sciences. It is very odd that Cambridge has such a strong English department when it is in the midst of so much science and social science specialisation. I only did Chinese as a postgraduate. Although I went to the same college as Joseph Needham, the great Sinologist, I never dreamed then I would end up spending so much of my life dealing with China.” 
After completing his undergraduate degree, Brown taught in Japan and Mongolia. Both posts, he says, came about “wholly by accident. I went to Japan because a friend at the time put me in touch with the Japan Exchange Teacher programme, and I got selected. For Inner Mongolia, this was the decision of the Voluntary Service Overseas people who suggested I go there.” In neither case, he adds, had he “specific plans to work in these places. My students in Japan were high school students, and most of the time looked terrified just being in the presence of a foreigner. In China, they were postgraduates, and were largely too busy working to notice me, so I was able to spend a very productive two years learning Chinese and starting my PhD.”
From 1998 to 2005 Brown worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and Beijing, latterly as head of its Indonesia, Philippines and East Timor Section. This career also came about “by accident”, he says, when “the Foreign Office advertised for direct entrants with some experience of China. I found the Foreign Office then full of very fine and talented people, but its senior leaders were extremely conservative, and the management culture from another century. The romantic image of diplomacy rubs against its somewhat more down to earth bureaucratic reality, and because I couldn’t stand this any more, I left.”

Of the greatest challenges he faced in the diplomatic service, Brown recalls, “Dealing with Indonesia was tough. But I did play a key part in getting rid of the ludicrous policy of accepting verbal assurances from Indonesian leaders that they would not use weapons the UK sold to them in conflict. In the end we tidied this up and simply judged arms sales according to our general laws.”

On the difficulties experienced by Western scholars studying China, Brown notes that the country “remains a hugely politicised subject. You are accused all the time of being either pro- or anti-China. I hope this sort of divisiveness disappears one day. But as long as China has a different political system to most of the rest of the world, it is hard to see this political edge disappearing. I aspire to be accused as much as possible, and hopefully for the same, of being simultaneously pro- and anti-China, simply because I increasingly haven’t a clue what these labels really mean.”

Has what he has written about China has affected his reception, or his ability to travel or research there? “Not that I have ever seen. But maybe I am being obtuse. And I tend to change my mind a lot, because the facts are always changing.”

He first went to China in 1994. Asked if he is surprised by the changes it has experienced in the ensuing years, Brown says, “Its wealth and material power and global standing would have been hard to see in 1994. But some things stay very much the same: the networked nature of Chinese society, the ways in which people link with each other. The material world in China has changed a lot. But the social and immaterial world, the inner lives of the people as it were, remain in some ways very unchanged.”

Were a good fairy to offer Brown the gift of any skill, he would choose “the ability to play a musical instrument. My daughter is learning guitar and drums and I am very envious. I learned violin for five years, and proved myself wholly without talent at it.”

Karen Shook

The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China

By Kerry Brown
I. B. Tauris, 240pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781780769103
Published 30 June 2014

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.