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 thirteen—for being one of the “masterminds” behind Tiananmen, which he unequivocally was not, although he gave the demonstrators much moderate advice.

All three of these men ignored the warnings of their fathers, who may or may not have agreed with their sons’ views, but knew one thing well: that if their boys crossed the line into opposition the Party would implacably pursue and smash them. I remember a judge in Shanghai, in 1979, a month before Wei’s trial, saying to me, “Let me tell you why Wei is going to get fifteen years.” High among Wei’s transgressions, he said, was the sin of having disgraced his father.

This is the one area in which children of the Party are not protected. If they cheat, embezzle or misuse funds, and brag about it, they will not just be let off; usually official heads will turn the other way.

But anti-Party activities, or “counter-revolution,” as it is called to give a veneer of legality to the punishment, are treated all the more harshly, regardless of age. Wang was only sixteen on April 5, 1976, when he led his classmates to Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Zhou Enlai and pasted four poems on the Martyrs’ Memorial. The demonstration, which also called for the return from exile of Deng Xiaoping and attacked the Gang of Four—and was pronounced to have been “democratic” after Deng came to power—was violently broken up; the young Wang got 224 days behind bars plus a year and a half in rural exile. A class traitor, he was just the sort of person Deng would wish to see eliminated when it was his turn to smash another demonstration thirteen years later.

This leads me to the implications of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the May 4 Movement, named for the day in 1919 when hundreds of Beijing students took to the streets to denounce their government for giving way to the imperialists. But May 4 has a much wider meaning in China: it is associated with the years on either side of 1919 when intellectuals began to make common cause with ordinary people, calling for literacy, female emancipation, the creation of trade unions, and above all for democracy and science, the new Western idols that could save China where Confucianism had failed.


When agitation and pamphleteering proved too slow, it was young May 4 activists like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and soon Deng who founded the Party and began the underground work that would lead them to power in 1949.

On this anniversary, those surviving men and women of the May 4 generation will have remembered how their youthful courage and dare-to-die determination carried them through the Nationalist purges in which most of their early comrades died, through the Long March, and the civil war, to their eventual seizure of State control.

The ancient leaders, remembering their youthful subversion, look at men like Xi, Wei, and Wang, and say, “Such men are like us. Lock them up.”

May 12, 1994

This Issue

June 9, 1994