Princelings: PRC's Rise, US Decline & Sociology

♠ Posted by Emmanuel at 5/20/2012 10:15:00 AM
The rich are different from you and me - (mis)attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have been absolutely gobsmacked by the amount of Western press coverage the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal has received. Once more demonstrating this blog's commitment to Highbrow Content, until today I've made no posts whatsoever on his recent entanglements. Ironically, I made a bevy of them while he was China's minister of commerce when most of the world outside of trade circles had no idea who he was. Dealing with his EU counterpart during the so-called bra wars was as racy as things got in the realm of international trade which is admittedly not always the best newspaper fodder.

Nowadays, though, we are inundated with endless stories about the Communist Party trying to control the PR mess of Bo falling from grace just as he was about to ascend to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Nearly every day I go to the office, our copy of the International Herald Tribune has featured something about Bo and family for several months now. Another sideshow involves his son Bo Guagua and the cushy lifestyles many children of CCP powers-that-be have. While these party elders--whose parents often shared roots with none other than Chairman Mao--keep spouting socialist rhetoric, their children go to elite Western universities whose tuition in the hundreds of thousands of dollars does not square with the comparatively meager salaries Chinese public servants receive.

Which of course further undermines, albeit unsurprisingly, Maoist-Leninist regurgitation these folks constantly spew out. Denouncing America and its way of life while sending your children to study there is not quite convincing. Although sometimes exaggerated--earlier reports of Bo Guagua's extravagant Ferrari-driving lifestyle have been questioned as press embellishments--there are some deeper sociological implications at work here that I wish to explore:

1. As the quote above expresses, elites the world over regardless of their brand of rhetoric spin are pretty much alike. (I play the cut-price neo-Gramscian today.) I myself have worked alongside Party officials as colleagues at LSE IDEAS who led modest lifestyles and were mostly educated in China. Yet, the children of tippy-top officials alike Bo benefit from being an elite within an elite just as a billionaire occupies commanding heights while sharing the same rarefied air as a mere multimillionaire.

2. Seen in this light, there is nothing really unexpected in this turn of events and the blanket media coverage. However, looking at the broader canvas, think of it as a levelling exercise. Westerners call it the "crab mentality" where those who have risen above the rest need to be pulled back down for a jolly good image battering. Australians have a variation of this in "tall poppy syndrome" where those moving up too high too fast need to be cut down (and partly explains why the Murdoch press empire began there with a penchant for doing so until his international exploits led to his own comeuppance). If defaming privileged Chinese kids is part of the collateral damage, well, journalists aren't so sympathetic.

3. Despite the obvious appetite for these sorts of stories, they do not dispel the overall impression of China rising relative to the United States. After all, that it's now "Communist" Chinese who can most easily afford tuition at elite American universities tells you something when they also have the most foreign students in the US. Who's got the cold hard cash here, bub?

4. Being part of what I call an elite of an elite, princelings are few and far between. Nor is their entitlement guaranteed as politicking within the CCP is as rough as in any other party. Bo knows. That is, while you can read about them everyday in the IHT, most Westerners who are themselves not part of Western elites will not encounter them. What your average person does experience of China and the United States OTOH leaves a far bigger impression, and PRC leadership gets understand this despite being caught off-guard by Bo's shenanigans.

As many Chinese elites who've been to the US probably have experienced, the user interface of America leaves a lot to be desired given its crumbling infrastructure. Come to the United States' largest city and you'll probably experience the hell that is JFK International Airport, the worst in the world, with all other Big Apple airports also being in the bottom 10. Picking up their Lexus LFAs or whatever mode of transportation they say princelings get nowadays, Bo Guagua will also have had firsthand experience of running into crater-sized potholes as US freeways recede into further oblivion.

So while princelings do reveal Chinese hypocrisy, it is generally expected of elites the world over. Yet reputational damage from their existence is limited given that they are few and far between and they ironically bolster the idea that the Chinese are on the ascendant. In contrast, it is painfully easy to make the link between the United States' crumbling infrastructure and its crumbling economy with the world's worst airport and highways whose condition suggests recent Taliban mortar assault.

Beat up on the princelings if it makes you happy, but at the end of the day it doesn't dent China a whit. To paraphrase, some appearances count more than others. That which is experienced by more and is clearly emblematic of decline--substitute smooth Chinese highways and gleaming airports for their dilapidated American counterparts--shapes others' opinions more.