Tyger! Tyger! A Fearful Symmetry

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake

By September 2014, some forty-eight high-level Communist Party cadres, military officials and party-state bureaucrats (that is, those ranked at deputy provincial level/ ministry level and higher 副省、副部、副军级以上干部) had been swept up in the vaunted Xi Jinping-Wang Qishan post-Eighteenth Party Congress anti-corruption campaign. By that time, the highest-level targets of the purge were the Hu-Wen-era Party Politburo member Zhou Yongkang and the PLA general Xu Caihou.[1]

It is noteworthy that all forty-eight ‘Tigers’ 老虎, that is high-level corrupt officials, are reportedly from ‘commoner’ 平民 families. Indeed most are from peasant or similarly humble origins; none are easily identified as being members of what is known as the ‘Red Second Generation’ 红二代, that is, the children of the founding Communist Party fathers and mothers of the Yan’an era and early People’s Republic or, indeed, ‘Bureaucrat Second Generation’ 官二代, that is, the children of members of the first generation of representatives/ bureaucrats selected to join the inaugural convocations of the National People’s Congress or the National People’s Political Consultative Committee, both founded in 1954 (in the Mao era a high-level cadre was above Rank Thirteen in the Twenty-four Rank Cadre System 二十四级干部制).

It goes with saying that, in the murky corridors of Communist power, an impressive number of party gentry progeny, or the offspring of the Mao-era nomenclatura, have been implicated in corrupt practices, but word has it that, like the well-connected elites of other climes, they’ve enjoyed a ‘soft landing’: being discretely relocated, shunted into delicate retirement or quietly ‘redeployed’. It’s all very comfy; and it’s all very much business as usual.

What has been extraordinary about the Xi-Wang anti-corruption purge is not so much its style or extent, but the fact that after nearly two years, members of the privileged families of the party-state have gone on the record to observe why they are above the grimy business of corruption. Members of this group have been of interest to The China Story Project for some years. I first wrote about them in an article for the June 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly titled ‘The Children of Yan’an: New Words of Warning to a Prosperous Age 盛世新危言‘, and again in ‘Red Eclipse’, the conclusion to our 2012 China Story Yearbook: Red Rising, Red Eclipse.

They feature once more in our upcoming China Story Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny 共同命运.

Over the years many observers have blithely dismissed these Maoist remnants and treated them, at best, as marginal figures, often deriding them as has-beens. But in the closed system of China, these seemingly defunct members of the ageing party gentry, their fellows and their families should not be underestimated. The fury that their hauteur and unthinking air of superiority generates within the unconnected party-state bureaucracy and aspirational classes should also not be overlooked.

I would point out that, having known the first commentator quoted below, Ye Xiangzhen/Ling Zi, for over thirty years, I feel compelled to observe that she was an active member of the notorious Red Guard group known as the Capital Middle-school Red Guard Joint Action Committee 首都中学红卫兵联合行动委员会, the membership of which was strictly limited to the children of party cadres and leaders. It was a group that aimed to protect several older cadres while mercilessly sacrificing others and pursuing an agenda that would see them, the true Red Successors of Chairman Mao’s enterprise take power without delay. Later described as the ‘Emperor’s Faction’ 保皇派 (a term dating from the late-Qing period, previously used to describe those who would protect the royal house in the face of radical constitutional reform), they did not hesitate to employ class struggle in their favour (the most famous slogan that encapsulated their worldview was: ‘Dad a hero, son a stalwart; dad a reactionary, son a bastard, it’s basically the pattern’ 老子英雄儿好汉;父亲反动儿混蛋,基本如此). In this context it is worth revisiting the prescient writings of the tragic high-school student Yu Luoke 遇罗克,[2] in particular his 1966 essay ‘On Family Background’ 出身论.[3]

In the factional mêlée that followed, the Joint Action Committee was sidelined and other revolutionary successors (later denounced as those who were ‘helicoptered’ into power) found a place in Mao’s jerry-built party-state structures known as Revolutionary Committees. Nonetheless, members of this group continue to see reality through the prism of class/caste struggle and the long-delayed rightful inheritance of their revolutionary legacy. They began to inherit in the 1980s (Bo Xilai was a prominent and very public winner in this regard in the years up to the Eighteenth Party Congress). Now they occasionally step into the spotlight, providing us with a rare glimpse into the worldview of this secretive cabal.

Of course, Xiangzhen can speak of the simple-living older cadres. Having visited Ye Jianying’s Houhai city-block size mansion in the 1980s (see the illustration below), I understand just the kind of unthinking ‘frugality’ from which her class habitus springs. It should also be noted that she enjoyed two careers: that of a film-maker who somehow got to make the first independent film of the 1980s, ‘In the Wild’ 原野; and, that of a doctor. Her 1985 film, ‘Three Darlings Cause an Uproar in Shenzhen’ 三宝闹深圳, was a crude commercial affirmation of the Special Economic Zone championed by Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, a zone next to Guangdong province, the homeland of the Ye family. Shortly thereafter, Ye Xiangzhen took up residence in Hong Kong long before Mainlanders flooded the former British colony and, following a dalliance with Qigong Masters, she became enamoured of Buddhist and Confucian mummery, again, before such things infected her caste as a whole. No wonder there is no political tax on hereditary Communist cultural capital.

For a further insight into the Ye family’s humble circumstances, readers might enjoy the opening episodes of the forty-eight-part commemorative/hagiographic TV series ‘Deng Xiaoping in the Era of Transition’ 历史转折中的邓小平 (directed by the celebrated Fifth Generation film-maker, Wu Ziniu 吴子牛) released in August 2014. For a time, the yet-to-be-rehabilitated Deng takes refuge in Ye Jianying’s communist-palatial retreat at Yuquan Shan 玉泉山, the Central Committee redoubt in the northwest of Beijing located between the Summer Palace and the Fragrant Hills. The series offers us a rare glimpse of the Ye country residence. I should emphasise that such lofty accommodation has nothing to do with corruption. Its allocation is well within the party norms of ‘the requirements of revolutionary work’ 革命工作需要. Few could quibble about that; here my contrastive Tigers are caught in the dialectical symmetry of their economic base and their ideological superstructure.

The following is a small sample of some recent observations on the anti-tiger corruption purge by some of the more outspoken members of China’s Red Gentry. I have added an historical note by a Shanghai-based academic specialising in ‘management psychology’, and conclude with the Ming-dynasty philosopher Li Zhi, a favourite of the late-Mao era.


The Former Residence of Marshall Ye Jianying, Houhai, Beijing. Photograph: Geremie R. Barmé

Ye Xiangzhen (叶向真, also known by her artistic name Lingzi 凌子, Deputy Head of the All-China Confucius Academy 中华孔子学会副会长, member of the fourth-generation film makers and eldest daughter of Marshall Ye Jianying 叶剑英, one of the founders of the People’s Liberation Army):

The Red Second Generation witnessed the frugality and struggles of their parent’s generation, the fact that they were willing to shed blood and martyr themselves for the nation. They were profoundly influenced by their fathers and relatively speaking are not easily corruptible.

Zhou Bingde 周秉德, former Deputy Chief of the China News Agency and niece of Zhou Enlai, remarked:

The reason that bureaucrats from a Red Second Generation background are only very rarely involved in corruption is that they have inherited the tradition from their parents of placing the People and the Nation above all.

Xu Xiaoyan 徐小岩, a lieutenant general in the PLA and daughter of Xu Xiangqian 徐向前, remarks:

The Red Second Generation grew up immersed in family admonishments 幼承庭训, how could they give in to corruption like those others?[4]

Tao Siliang 陶斯亮, the pre-1966 party elder Tao Zhu’s 陶铸 daughter, Deputy Director of the China Mayors’ Association, has said:

Through revolution and the heritage of blood our parents bequeathed to us the Red Gene 红色基因. I don’t believe that this gene will ever lose its lustre, because we will carry it forward. I’m willing to admit that I’m a Red Second Generation because that’s just what I am, the second generation of revolutionaries. It is time for us to play the natural positive role that we have and support General Secretary Xi Jinping in carrying on the anti-corruption campaign to the very end and to pursue reform to the end.[5]

Hu Muying 胡木英, party propagandist and writer extraordinaire Hu Qiaomu’s 胡乔木 daughter, organiser of the Children of Yan’an 北京延安儿女联谊会, has remarked:

The Centre under General Secretary Xi Jinping has raised high the banners of ‘Opposing the Four Winds’,[6] Anti-Corruption Pro-Frugality and Mass Line Education. These Three Banners are backed up by real action against the ill-winds and the pernicious miasma that has suffused our world for many years, and he’s taken the knife to both Tigers and Flies.

This is a Life and Death Struggle! I sincerely hope that our Red Second Generation will clearly recognise the [gravity of the] situation, and during this struggle firmly support and closely coordinate with our Central Committee led by General Secretary Xi Jinping so that we can contribute our meagre energies, carry on the revolutionary legacy of our fathers’ generation of party members, pass on and enhance the positive energy of the past, discover and support all the healthy energies in the society, not create interference through distracting broadsides, not create more problems than we help resolve, not believe in rumours or spread rumours, not interfere with the strategy of the Centre, and, like our fathers before us, and for the sake of the enterprise of the Party, for the greater good of the People, to cast aside our individual needs, to overcome our present or historical resentments and grudges, unite as one and work to make China wealthy and strong and to realise the great dream of the renaissance of the Chinese nation.[7]

Ju Qiang 鞠强, a professor of ‘management psychology’ at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote an essay not long ago titled ‘Bad People Generally Come from Extreme Poverty; the Great Corrupt Cadres are Mostly From Dire Poverty’ 《极贫出身的坏人多,大贪官出身多极穷》, in which he observed:

Bureaucrats who come from extreme poverty in youth easily fall prey to vile excesses of corruption, whoring and gambling. Observe the progeny of high-level bureaucrats 宦官子弟: of course, they too will go after making money but most of them do not indulge in it with unseemly haste. The majority take advantage of a positive business environment to make their money gradually, rarely do they achieve wealth through egregious corruption or outright theft. They are aware that they could easily become wealthy via the short-cut of corruption but that requires little talent or real application, and it is extremely risky.

However, people from a background of extreme poverty are by and large willing to forget all decency and morality and in their rush to amass wealth they are perverse enough to risk jail to achieve their ends; the majority lack all loyalty and the sight of a pretty woman makes them salivate disgustingly; and the majority will not give a thought to killing whoever gets in their way.

Why did [the emperors and ministers] Qin Shihuang, Zhu Yuanzhang, Zhu Wen and Zhang Xianzhong kill so many loyal ministers? And why, by contrast, were Li Xiu, Li Shimin and Zhao Kuangyin relatively relaxed? The answer is: Qin Shihuang, Zhu Yuanzhang, Zhu Wen and Zhang Xianzhong passed their early years in uncertainty and in their subconscious they had no deep-seated sense of security. Therefore, they were all much given to being suspicious, while Liu Xiu, Li Shimin and Zhao Kuangyin grew up in more well off and balanced circumstances, with a sense of personal security and they were less suspicious of others.[8]


In conclusion, I would observe that as statist Confucianism enjoys ever-new levels of official support (see, for example, our recent posting ‘The Confucian Return in an Age of Extremes‘) any serious student of high-Maoism would be reminded of the Ming-dynasty anti-Confucian firebrand, the philosopher Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602), whose key works were reprinted during the mid-1970s’ anti-Confucius campaign. Among his many bons mots, Li remarked of the morality-sprouting bureaucrats of his day (in particular in his Book to be Burnt 焚书) that:

They speak of the Way and Morality yet in their hearts they crave lofty position; they are fixated on accumulating prodigious wealth.


On the surface they are Moralists, deep down they crave riches; they cloak themselves in the refined garb of the Confucian, but their behaviour is no better than that of dogs and pigs.



Sources and Notes:

* Translations are my own.

[1] Voice of America, ‘Corrupt Bureaucrats and Bloodlines: Commoner-officials Fall to Earth, the Red Second Generation is Untainted?’ 贪官与血统:平民官落马红二代不贪?, 9 October 2014, http://www.voachinese.com/content/few-red-princeings-targeted-in-anti-corruption-campagin-20140910/2444657.html

See, in particular:



Or, in the more colourful language of the Hong Kong tabloids, see ‘A Political Reading of the Fall of Zhou Yongkang’ 周永康倒台的政治解读, Dongxiang 動向, 17 August 2014, http://www.botanwang.com/articles/201408/周永康倒台的政治解读.html:


[2] See Geremie R. Barmé, ‘A Historical Distortion‘, Australian Financial Times, 31 March 2006, reprinted under its original title ‘A Year of Some Significance’, with footnotes, by China Digital Times:

At the time, Yu Luoke was a recent high-school graduate. Refused entry to university despite his academic brilliance-he was penalized because his parents were classified as petty capitalists-he had to take a job in a factory. But in his spare time he wrote, lambasting Mao and all of his works.

In the pages of his 1966 diary Yu Luoke called Mao’s purge of top leaders a “palace coup”, and he satirized claims that Mao Zedong Thought was some omnipotent ideological cure-all. He condemned the hypocrisy of the nation’s media and derided clumsy distortions of historical fact used to stir up mass dudgeon. He declared the Red Guards to be dangerous extremists, and predicted that the movement would never survive the test of time. Yu Luoke was one of the first people to quip that Mao’s enterprise was neither ‘cultural’ nor ‘revolutionary’.

In the short period of anarchic freedom that resulted from the collapse of party rule in 1966-1967, Yu Luoke published a weekly paper expressing ideas that were truly radical for their time. However, as order was restored the paper was closed down, its editors investigated and, finally, Yu Luoke himself was arrested. His diary was found and confiscated. After years of obfuscation, the authorities told his family that he had been executed in early 1970. Although today he is a prescient hero for China’s independent intellectuals and informed readers, Yu Luoke remains a fragmentary spectre. Only a few scant pages from his extraordinary diary have ever been returned to his family.

[3] Yu Luoke, ‘On Family Background’ 出身论. For more on the fate of Yu, see the 2003 documentary film ‘Morning Sun’ 八九点钟的太阳.

[4] ‘Zhou Enlai’s Niece: Red Second Generation Rarely Corrupt, they inherit the beliefs and principles of their parents’ 《周恩来侄女:红二代极少涉贪继承父辈信仰原则》http://news.takungpao.com/mainland/focus/2014-09/2727403.html

[5] China Red Song Association Net, ‘Extracts of Speeches Made at the Centenary Commemoration of the Births of Li Zuopeng and Qiu Huizuo’ 中国红歌会网,《在李作鹏、邱会作百年诞辰纪念会讲话摘录》http://www.szhgh.com/Article/red-china/redman/2014-05-27/52967.html

[6] Namely, the ‘winds’ or habits 风 of formalism 形式主义、bureaucratism 官僚主义、hedonism 享乐主义 and extravagance 奢靡之风.

[7] New Historical Records on Sina, ‘Hu Qiaomu’s Daughter: the Second-generation of Red Successors shouldn’t create problems’ 新浪网新史记,《胡乔木之女:红二代不要帮倒忙》http://history.sina.com.cn/his/zl/2014-05-09/181690435.shtml

[8] News Forum on Wangyi, ‘Bad People Generally Come from Extreme Poverty; the Great Corrupt Cadres are Mostly From Dire Poverty’ 网易新闻论坛,《极贫出身的坏人多,大贪官出身多极穷》http://bbs.news.163.com/bbs/zhongmei/379666006.html