Society & Culture

Children Of China’s Elite Attending Top Western Schools: Hypocrisy Or Good Fortune?

I went to school with one of the first so-called ‘princelings’ to study in the U.S.  This was a  few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, China wasn’t that hot and my friend got no special treatment or attention. My friend’s admittance was entirely on merit, and the education was entirely financed by loans and scholarships. After graduation, my friend worked very successfully in the U.S. for few years, then, even though my friend and the family had suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution, returned to China .

In China, my friend started a business advisory service that relied mostly on expertise but certainly didn’t discount strong government ties. But the government ties part was more akin to Washington lobbying. Nothing unusual and certainly nothing corrupt.

My friend has done well but, by the standards of our classmates, not extraordinarily well. And, my friend has contributed greatly in time and money to important charitable causes in China. A life well-spent. Better perhaps because of U.S. education

So, I read with particular interest ‘Chinese communist leaders denounce U.S. values but send children to U.S. colleges’ in the Washington Post. In a tabloid, such a headline would not be surprising or disappointing, nor would the conjoining of disparate and unrelated facts into some sort of charge of hypocrisy. An example:

But the kin of senior party officials are a special case: They rarely attend state schools but congregate instead at top-tier — and very expensive — private colleges, a stark rejection of the egalitarian ideals that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme decision-making body of a Communist Party steeped in anti-American rhetoric, at least five have children or grandchildren who have studied or are studying in the United States.

Consider first, ’[T]hey rarely attend state schools but congregate instead at top-tier — and very expensive — private colleges,…’  If the author can show that their acceptance was due to their parents’ or grandparents’ status or influence, then this is an issue. But, if top-tier private colleges accept them on their merits, shouldn’t they go?

Second, ‘…a stark rejection of the egalitarian ideals that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949.’ As far as I know the egalitarian ideals ship sailed soon after Deng Xiaoping took over. Is the fact that because of position, they receive a better education, any different from the wealthy in America who can afford to send their children to top high schools and boarding schools and thus improve their chances of acceptance to a top school? Not entirely fair, to be sure, but hard to distinguish.

Finally, ‘Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme decision-making body of a Communist Party steeped in anti-American rhetoric, at least five have children or grandchildren who have studied or are studying in the United States.’

How many of U.S. elites, often equally anti-Chinese Communist Party, have sent their children to China to learn the language and culture in preparation for a world possibly shared by the two leading economies? Is this hypocrisy or just the desire to best prepare their children?

The most troubling issue, however, is also discussed:

Helping to foster growing perceptions that the party is corrupt is a big, unanswered question raised by the foreign studies of its leaders’ children: Who pays their bills? Harvard, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and living expenses over four years, refuses to discuss the funding or admission of individual students.

But is the issue of how bills are paid, however dishonest the sources, relevant to the issue of the Chinese elite children being educated in the West?

As far as I can see, in the long run, having these children understand well the U.S. and the West is of the greatest benefit to both the U.S./West and China.

And, of all U.S. school best suited for this task, is perhaps Harvard.  The Post singles out Harvard in a related graphic titled, ‘China’s Harvard connection’ and the intro:

China’s Communist Party is steeped in anti-American rhetoric, but many of its leaders have children or grandchildren who have studied in the United States. Harvard is a particular favorite.

Here’s the chart.

For my part, may Harvard welcome many, many more. And other top schools too.

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  1. That s a rather naive article. If you look at it from a realistic perspective:

    - “My friend’s admittance was entirely on merit, and the education was entirely financed by loans and scholarships.”
    Yes but the fact he was aware of the possibility of studying abroad and that he was authorized to do so would not have happened if he did not come from a powerful family. Some exceptional students of humble origins (who managed to gather support from some officials) also had the chance to study abroad but they were very rare (Nobel Prize materials and such).

    - “’[T]hey rarely attend state schools but congregate instead at top-tier — and very expensive — private colleges,…’ If the author can show that their acceptance was due to their parents’ or grandparents’ status or influence, then this is an issue. But, if top-tier private colleges accept them on their merits, shouldn’t they go?”
    Let s look at the most recent example: it is proven that the son of BX was not a good student in Harrow and that he had to sit for an extra year.
    Schools are ready to accept these students anyway because these students are ‘prestigious’, can open for them the doors of China’s inner circles and are ready to pay big money to gain entrance.
    Schools would be fools not to take them, whatever their merits. Schools often claim they are forming the leaders of tomorrow, with such students, the job is halfway done already.
    The fact that these students gather in the same schools show that they only look for a prestigious school diploma (whatever the school or the diploma, it just has to look good). It also proves that schools that already let their academic standards down to accept these under par but prestigious students is ready to take other ones and because these princelings tend to live a secluded life with their peers wherever they are in the world.

    - “As far as I can see, in the long run, having these children understand well the U.S. and the West is of the greatest benefit to both the U.S./West and China.”
    Well, if you d go to Australia by example, you d see plenty of wealthy Chinese students living between each other and not excessively mingling with the locals. The princelings and the wealthy ones know they will go back home after graduation to keep enjoying their lives of privilege and know they don t need to adapt themselves to the society hosting them (it s not quite the case for the “normal” Chinese students who are more eager to make the most of their experience abroad).

    Has the author ever been to China or been in touch with Chinese culture?

    • Hi Evelyne, and thanks for your comment,

      Haven’t been to China but I do like Chinese food. Now, let me address your other points.

      First, the Chinese friend I went to school with. I was with the friend in graduate school. The friend had come over a few years after the Cultural Revolution to go to a major university, graduating magna cum laude in international relations. Following graduation the friend worked successfully at a Fortune 500 company for two years before going to a top-tier graduate school. As far as I can see, graduate school admission was on merit, and here’s why-the part of the story I didn’t tell.

      My friend came to the U.S. after her family had been crushed in the Cultural Revolution. The friend’s parents were not even rehabilitated by the CCP until the friend had graduated college. So much for the power of the family in getting into a good U.S. college.

      My friends decision to come to the U.S. was probably more to escape from all the friend had suffered at hands of the Chinese government and to make a new life. And, the friend did this through hard work. Oh, the loans and scholarships–I know how my friend’s education was financed because much of it came from American friends of mine who felt more sympathy than the desire to gain advantage in a China still ravaged by the CR and facing an uncertain future, and from someone whose family was at the time of college in disgrace.

      Second, as for admittance to a top-tier school, I noted that if it is not on merit but on family status and influence then that is a problem. But, since you give Bo Xilai’s son as an example, let me give one closer to my home. How do you suppose George W. Bush got into Yale, got mediocre grades, and then on to Harvard Business School? Merit?

      Top-tier U.S. universities are not just about academics but also being close to power. When I was at Harvard Business School, those of us who got in on what we assumed was merit (no family influence in that crowd) were at first resentful of our few fellow students whose admittance seemed certainly from the family route. But, after a time, most of saw the value to the school–and to us–in cultivating ties with those families. And, the kids were all fine if not always the best students.

      Finally, the benefit of the children of the elite understanding the U.S. and the west. I can’t speak for the situation in Australia. But I know that I would be more comfortable if Xi Jingping had a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, whether he had been a good student or not, or gotten in because of family position or influence. In countries like China, you can’t predict who are going to emerge as leaders. For China’s foreseeable future, probably a good number will be princelings. I for one would like them to get as much exposure to and understanding of U.S. and western culture, politics, way of thought, and people, as possible, so that the ones who do rise to power, however unfairly, don’t make policy or take actions toward the west based just on what they learned about us in China. Better for both sides.

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