Chinese leaders might not see anything in the U.S. political system they might want to emulate, but they can’t deny the quality of the country’s higher education system, recently rated as number one in the world. Far from denying it, in fact, many high government officials choose to take advantage of it, sending their children there in ever larger numbers. The latest scion of the “red nobility” to enroll is Xi Mingze, daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president who is widely considered to be the next in line to head the country’s government. Mingze begun attending classes at Massachusetts’ Harvard University in 2010 under an assumed name.
In the last fifteen years, the number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. colleges has quadrupled with nearly 160,000 taking classes during the 2010-2011 school year.
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.
For China’s leaders, Harvard has become somewhat of a rite of passage. Children and grandchildren of two of the last three heads of government graduated from Harvard. And some from both China and the U.S. are now asking questions about who is footing the bill for a four-year education at one of the most expensive private universities in the world.
One of the students who has had to face particularly strident questioning is Bo Guagua, the son of a recently disgraced local party leader Bo Xilai. After a speaker at a Harvard seminar on Chinese Studies accused his family of profligacy including owning at least one luxury car, Bo responded with a letter to Harvard’s paper the Crimson saying that he didn’t own a Ferrari and his tuition was paid partly by scholarships and partly by his mother from the savings she’s accumulated from her legal work and proceeds from her books.
At the moment, Bo is dealing with the fallout from his father being accused of murder of a British businessman Neil Heywood, and his mother is also detained in connection with his death. Bo said he was worried that speculations about the source of his family’s wealth would make the situation more difficult for his mother.
Still, Bo’s concerns aren’t likely to quiet speculations about how government officials with annual salaries around $20,000 can not only afford to send their kids to top-notch U.S. colleges but also expensive boarding schools both in America and abroad.
“This is about haves and have-nots,” said Hong Huang, the stepdaughter of Mao’s foreign minister Qiao Guanhua and a member of an earlier generation of American-educated princelings. “China’s old-boy network . . . is no different from America’s old-boy network,” said Hong, who went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and whose mother served as Mao’s English teacher.