BEIJING — When Maoists were trying to keep control of China in the 1970s, a powerful general from the south came to the aid of moderates, helping to arrest the radicals and throw them in jail.
The bold actions of the general, Ye Jianying, paved the way for the country’s move to a more market- oriented economy and created a political dynasty that still plays king-maker, able to influence national policy and protect its sprawling business empire in southern China.
Over the past year, according to party insiders familiar with the situation, Ye’s children — the general died in 1986 at age 89 — have helped organize meetings to criticize the country’s current course, influenced top military appointments and helped block a vocal economic reformer from joining the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the small, powerful group at the top of the party hierarchy, because they felt that he was not attentive to their interests.
The rise of so-called princelings — like the Ye family — will reach a capstone this week, when Xi Jinping, himself the son of a Communist Party pioneer, is to be unveiled as China’s top leader at the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress. Xi is likely to be joined by at least two other princelings on the seven-member Standing Committee.
Despite rising controversy over their prominent role in government and business — highlighted by recent corruption cases, including one that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, the once-powerful princeling whose wife was found guilty of murder — China’s princelings, who number in the hundreds, are emerging as an aristocratic class that has an increasingly important say in ruling the country.
While they feud and fight among themselves, many princelings have already made their mark in the established order, playing important roles in businesses, especially state-owned enterprises. Others are heavily involved in finance or lobbying, where personal connections are important.
Many of the oldest among them — those now set to take power — share something else: an upbringing during some of China’s most difficult years. Many were children during the Great Leap Forward, when upward of 30 million people died of famine from 1958 to 1962, and teenagers during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, a period many spent as outcasts or in exile after their parents were attacked by Maoist radicals.
“This is a volatile generation, one that didn’t have a systematic education and often saw the worst side of the Communist revolution," said a senior party journalist who grew up with some of China’s princelings and asked for anonymity because of pressure from China’s security apparatus. “They’ve learned one thing, and that’s all you can count on is your family."
The princelings are distinct from the current top rulers of China, most of whom owe their allegiance to institutions in the Communist Party. The outgoing party general secretary, Hu Jintao, rose up through the Communist Youth League, one of the party’s key bodies. Likewise, the premier, Wen Jiabao, who leaves office next year, is an organization man with few outside sources of power.
Hu’s legitimacy derives from being appointed by Deng Xiaoping, the last leader to have played a central role in the Chinese Revolution and a dominant figure until his death in 1997. Deng had a series of general secretaries and premiers whom he dismissed before settling on Jiang Zemin after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Later, he gave Hu the nod as Jiang’s successor.