The Prodigal Sons

What do Xi Yang, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Juntao have in common? Yes, they are all “counter-revolutionary elements, subversives, splittists, black hands”—whatever Peking cares to call them—and all three are familiar with the Party’s prison accommodations.

Xi, a journalist for the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, is just begining a twelve-year stretch for stealing state financial secrets; Wei, a veteran of almost fifteen years inside, is once again detained somewhere for unspecified “crimes”; and Wang, jailed in 1989 for thirteen years as a Tiananmen Square “black hand,” has been freed for medical treatment in the US where he is supposed to urge Bill Clinton to renew China’s MFN status.

But there is a stronger bond among these three men: they are all sons of Party veterans. Xi’s father, until his retirement, was one of the editors of the People’s Daily, the Party’s main newspaper. Wei’s was a senior Party official, so devoted to Mao that he forced his son to memorize a page of the Great Teacher’s works every day or miss supper. And Wang’s father ended his career as a general and department head at the Army’s political academy.

Throughout much of the Communist era a “bad class background” could land you in the worst jobs or in years of “education through labor,” even if you were merely the grandchild of a landlord or a Nationalist official. But Xi’s, Wei’s, and Wang’s backgrounds are exemplary. They are children of the Party, indeed very close to that heavenly state of being, “the Red Princes,” those children of the Party grandees who can do no wrong.

Except that such “children of the high ones” must never—repeat never—attack the system. It is perfectly all right—as the example of Deng Xiaoping’s own family shows—for them to take advantage of their social and political rank to rise high in the hierarchy, live splendidly, see forbidden films, read forbidden books, travel freely, and make a lot of money. A great deal of this money is made corruptly, which explains why the State, despite its incessant anti-corruption campaigns and admonitions from leaders as high as President Jiang Zemin that such practices “can bring us down,” cannot persuade lowlier officials, down to the county level, to get off the take.

And the venality of the Red Princes cannot be controlled for a simple reason explained to me years ago in Peking by a Chinese friend: “They love their boys.”

But Xi, Wei, and Wang took a different road, and one of the reasons for their horrific sentences—quite out of line for most such offenses—is their backgrounds. That is why Xi got twelve years for a “crime” for which another Hong Kong reporter was merely thrown out (her alleged confederate, a Chinese citizen, is serving life), why Wei got fifteen—for calling for democracy and accusing Deng of being a tyrant, in 1979, and why Wang got …

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