Inside Story

King Midas in China

While the media was gripped by the Bo Xilai scandal, the story of another privileged child of a Communist Party official was unfolding on the internet, writes Antonia Finnane in Beijing

Antonia Finnane 23 May 2012 1076 words

Above: Statue of Mao Zedong in Hunan Province, near where Wang Qian was appointed deputy head of the development and reform bureau.
Photo: nozomiiqel/ Flickr

WHAT do Chinese bloggers blog about if they’re not allowed to comment on what the rest of the world is talking about? In the course of April, the names of Bo Xilai (corrupt high official) and Chen Guangcheng (blind defender of human rights) both became unmentionable on the China-wide-web. This must have made life difficult for more than the bloggers. Chen Guangcheng being a common name, it is probable that thousands of people have been affected; and words like “blind” and “sunglasses” have also become sensitive as censors track the use of nicknames by inventive netizens.

Fortunately there is always a little scandal to talk about if the big one is off limits. As the Bo Xilai saga was unfolding in the international media, the Wang Qian saga was unfolding in Chinese cyberspace. The two cases have been feeding off each other in daily conversation: like Bo Xilai’s son, Guagua, Wang Qian is the indulged child of a party official. China is full of parents anxious about the future of the one precious child most of them have, and nothing galls them like the privileges enjoyed by someone else’s offspring.

Wang Qian is “gen nineties,” as everyone in China now knows. She was born in October 1991, and will be celebrating her twenty-first birthday later this year if she is in the mood for it. Until recently, her father, party member Wang Dawu, was a provincial-level official serving as director of large projects within the Development and Reform portfolio of the Hunan provincial government. Large projects give an official access to lots of money, and enable him (rarely her) to wield power and influence over officials further down the provincial hierarchy.

A powerful official can make his subordinates do nearly anything, but he cannot always get his only child to study hard. Wang Qian attended the top high school in her hometown but failed to distinguish herself in the national matriculation exam. According to media reports, she undertook tertiary study at the University of Hertfordshire (Singapore), or claimed to have done so. UH(S) may be a virtual campus: an organisation called the TMC Academy in Singapore has partnerships with half a dozen British universities, including Hertfordshire, and awards certificates, diplomas and degrees accredited by those institutions.

After a year’s study, with some sort of certificate in hand, Qian returned home to a difficult job market in China. In recent years, graduates around the country have been queuing up for lowly positions, and those from overseas universities face particular difficulties. By definition, they are poorly networked, without teachers and fellow students in the system to help them along. Party and government positions are especially unlikely to go to overseas graduates, even those from a good American university. Half a qualification from UH(S) was not likely to cut the mustard.

Qian’s advantage was a father in the system. In September 2010, just short of her nineteenth birthday, she obtained a position in the key projects office of the development and reform bureau of a county in west Hunan province. She then applied for leave from the same position to continue her studies, but apparently without having the course certified by the Ministry of Education’s study abroad centre. This has since given rise to suspicions in China that there is no such thing as UH(S). In October 2011 she was formally admitted to the ranks of the civil service, and in November, at the ripe old age of age of twenty, she was selected for the position of deputy head of the development and reform bureau in Yuetang District, Xiangtan, not far east of Mao Zedong’s old hometown.

Perhaps her father thought that no one would notice what was going on down in the depths of Hunan province, and perhaps no one would have if it were not for the fact that new appointments are usually listed in accessible places. On 19 April this year, the Xiangtan municipal government released the list of new appointments to office. In accordance with regulations, the table showed name, present position, new position, year and month of first official appointment, and year and month of birth. The Chinese bureaucracy is nothing if not thorough. Twenty-year-old Wang Qian, incoming deputy bureau head, was revealed to be the youngest appointee by a margin of six years, and the only non–party member. She was quickly dubbed “the goddess of Xiangtan,” a mocking reference by netizens to her supposed super powers.

It is a sign of the hubris of Communist Party officials that Wang Dawu failed to predict the ensuing uproar on the internet. The reaction led to an investigation and, on 28 April, father and daughter were both stripped of their positions. The head of the local organisation department, who had had to approve Wang Qian’s appointment, was transferred. All the party members involved underwent internal party discipline. Wang Qian avoided this, not being a party member, but has seen her name dragged through the mud of internet commentary, jokes and cartoons. It seems that a photo of her circulating in the early stages of this story was soon removed from the internet, but when the print media began to cover the story, photographs of both father and daughter were published.

It is hard not to see this spoiled girl as a victim of very bad parenting, not unlike Bo Guagua, the Ferrari-driving (or was that a Porsche?) party boy (the usual party, not the Communist one) with his 2nd from Oxford and his shattered hopes of Harvard. Wang Qian’s mother hasn’t killed anyone, and as far as we know her father hasn’t had anyone tortured, but as parents they have something in common with Bo Guagua’s parents. Like King Midas, who wanted everything he touched to turn into gold, they have ended up destroying their own children.

The Chinese Communist Party, which has a tradition of presenting itself as the parents of the people, is of course anxious to dissociate itself from these erring ones. On 2 May, the party’s news site posted a thundering response to the Wang Qian case, declaring its unity with the people in its abhorrence of favouritism, connections and the abuse of power in the making of appointments. The netizens will be having a field day. •