The Eight Immortals have a stature in China on a par with that of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson in the US. They emerged after Mao’s death in 1976, at a time when the economy was in ruins, and, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, turned everything round. They opened up the economy to the outside world, introduced capitalist reforms - though they were always careful to keep up the Communist front which provided their only claim to power - and dragged China into the modern world.
Now, according to an analysis at Bloomberg News, their descendants - the princelings - have, through nepotism and greed unhindered by any accountability or an open press, become the new elite: fabulously wealthy, and with a firm grip still on the levers of power. China’s new leader Xi Jinping is a princeling, as a descendant of a revolutionary fighter and vice premier. So are three other members of the newly installed seven-member ruling Politburo Standing Committee.
In the 1980s, they were chosen to run the new state conglomerates. In the 1990s, they tapped into real estate and the nation’s growing hunger for coal and steel. Today the Immortals’ grandchildren are players in private equity amid China’s integration into the global economy.
Twenty-six of the heirs ran or held top positions in state- owned companies that dominate the economy, data compiled by Bloomberg News show. Three children alone -- General Wang’s son, Wang Jun; Deng’s son-in-law, He Ping; and Chen Yuan, the son of Mao’s economic tsar -- headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011. That is equivalent to more than a fifth of China’s annual economic output.
The families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy. Forty-three of the 103 ran their own business or became executives in private firms, according to Bloomberg data. [...]
“The Chinese Communist Party, pretty much led by these eight people, established their legitimacy as rulers of China because they were stronger and tougher than the other guys,” said Barry Naughton, a professor of Chinese economy at the University of California, San Diego. “And now they’re losing it, because they haven’t been able to control their own greed and selfishness.”
China’s rich-poor divide is one of the widest in the world -- 50 percent above a level analysts use to predict potential unrest, according to a Chinese central bank-backed survey published this month. Protests, riots and other disturbances, often linked to local corruption and environmental degradation, doubled in five years to almost 500 a day in 2010.
“Ordinary people in China are very aware of these princelings, and when they think about changing the country, they feel a sense of despair because of the power of such entrenched interest groups,” Naughton said.
An interactive graphic shows the connections between the families of the Immortals.