Ming billionaires

Children of Chinese party officials are the new imperial clansmen.

Andrew Leonard
November 4, 2006 12:28AM (UTC)

In Chinese history, a typical dynastic story of rise and fall goes like this: Righteous rebellion against corrupt empire in decline. Redistribution of land to followers of new emperor and previously oppressed peasants. Then, as imperial family grows over time, a new aristocracy arises, becomes corrupt, and sows the seeds of its own downfall.

The Ming dynasty offers a great example. It was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, the leader of a massive peasant rebellion. Zhu followed a careful policy of land redistribution to small farmers that paved the way for a huge economic expansion.


But there was no one-child-per-family policy in the 14th century. Zhu Yuanzhang had 24 sons, all of whom became princes. His descendants were equally prolific. By by the end of the Ming dynasty the imperial clansmen numbered in the thousands, and their princely estates monopolized huge swaths of land.

Cue the Manchu conquest. And lather, rinse, repeat.

These reflections on dynastic history were spawned by a report out of China that 90 percent of China's new billionaires (measured in terms of Chinese yuan) are the children of senior party officials. Around 2,900 such children control 2 trillion yuan of wealth.

It's an old story, but worth repeating. What once took centuries to play out now takes mere decades. The Mandate of Heaven may be easier to lose than ever.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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