By Michael Ardaiolo
In the Saturday edition of The Washington Post, Andrew Higgens and Maureen Fan waxed poetic about the two-facedness of China’s Communist leaders denouncing Western values while simultaneously enrolling their children and grandchildren into Western universities.
In case you have not stumbled across the nickname thus far, a “princeling” is an offspring of a senior Chinese party official. The tag is vague but telling. For example, aging leaders whose careers are peaking today (or, in some cases, seriously trough-ing… ahem, Bo Xilai) are considered princelings. The most prominent of which is the next leader in waiting, Xi Jinping, as the son of a former vice-premier, Xi Zhongxun. In fact, according to Chinese political experts, “there were at least nine princelings in the 25-member Politburo between 2002 and 2007.” And this number may be rising. The ideologies of these men may vary drastically, but their upbringing by way of privileged networking and indisputable 关系 is consistent.
These days, though, the nickname is mostly being associated with the generation of privileged children who are embarking on early adulthood. The most famous of which is probably Bo Guagua, the son of the trough-ing Bo. In the wake of his father’s scandal, little Bo’s antics as a student abroad, whether true or exaggerated, have made headlines. It is hard, however, to put too much scrutiny on a young twenty-something’s maturity missteps during the first years of his freedom from out beneath the watchful eyes of his home country. (Take a moment to remember all of those cringe-worthy decisions you made as a university student.) How exactly he got into his higher education establishments, on the other hand, deserves a closer look.
Consider this tid-bit from the Washington Post article:
Before his ouster, Bo Xilai had an official annual salary of less than $20,000. But his son attended Harrow School, an exclusive private academy in London with annual fees of about $48,000; then Oxford, which, for overseas students, costs more than $25,000 a year just in tuition; and the Kennedy School, which, according to its own estimates, requires about $70,000 a year to cover tuition and living expenses.
Curious math, but that’s a whole different story.
Why exactly are China’s elite so eager to enroll their kids into Western universities when: 1. premier Chinese universities today approach the same level of excellency as their Western counterparts, and 2. standard government-issued rhetoric denounces the values of the home countries of these Western institutions?
There is not an exact answer, but it resides somewhere in the spectrum of soft power and reputation. The upper echelon of Western universities — think Harvard, Oxford, Stanford — are respected world-over. Despite what they may say on camera, “top American universities still carry more cachet among many in China’s political and business elite.” Moreover, it’s a status-symbol. Just like the lipstick red Ferrari in the garage, a degree from that very expensive top-tier Western university screams that you are a force to be reckoned with.
Need proof? This is one example the Washington Post ran to display the lengths resume-padding has become rampant:
The attraction of a top-brand university is so strong that some princelings flaunt even tenuous affiliations with a big-name American college. Li Xiaolin, the daughter of former prime minister and ex-Politburo member Li Peng, for example, has long boasted that she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a “visiting scholar at the Sloan Business School.” MIT says the only record it has of attendance by a student with Li’s name was enrollment in a “non-degree short course” open to executives who have “intellectual curiosity” and are ready to spend $7,500 for just 15 days of classes.
It returns to a lack of soft power. Hu Jintao declared in 2007 that China must invest in more soft power resources to convey a stronger, more unified country and culture. Higher education that attracts talent from across the globe is a very large step in the right direction to achieve this. The institutions are in place: In 2011’s QS World University Rankings, the University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University and Tsinghua University all placed in the top 50. The higher-ups of the Chinese government would be doing their country a huge favor if they trusted their national universities to educate their own children. That sends a rather strong and prideful message to Chinese citizens and the world.
This, on the other hand, does not:
During his final year at Oxford University in England, Bo Guagua ran into trouble because of inattention to his studies. When the university initiated a disciplinary process against him, the Chinese Embassy in London sent a three-person diplomatic delegation to Oxford to discuss the matter with Bo’s tutor at Balliol College, according to an academic who was involved in the episode and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak candidly. The embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The embassy trio pleaded on Bo’s behalf, stressing that education is very important to the Chinese, the academic said. The tutor replied that Bo should, in that case, learn to study more and party less. The intervention by Chinese diplomats didn’t help Bo and, in December 2008, he was “rusticated” for failing to produce academic work of an adequate standard, an effective suspension that, under Oxford regulations, meant he lost his “right of access” to all university facilities. Barred from college housing, Bo moved into a pricey local hotel. He was, however, allowed to take a final examination in 2010. Despite his banishment from classes, he performed well and received a degree.
Even better, if as a senior Chinese official you want to denounce Western values, you can feel free to do so without the blatant hypocrisy of that framed foreign diploma staring down at you from across the room.