China’s 1% Follow the American Model

The extreme wealth of China’s political elites has lately been a hot topic in the western media.  The Bo Xilai scandal dribbled blood into the mental waters of writers from The Daily Beast to the New York Times, and a raging feeding frenzy is now under way.  The conclusion of all of the coverage is the same:

China’s leaders are filthy rich; they get this way by using political influence to make their money; corruption is endemic.

The reporting leading to these conclusions has been great fun to read.  Bloomberg News recently offered a complex, illuminating piece on the ways Xi Jinping—future supreme leader of China—amassed his wealth.  Others have been following the ways China’s elites are funneling their kids (the so-called Princelings)  into Harvard.  On the more scintillating end, rumors have surfaced that Bo Xilai paid actress Zhang Ziyi a million dollars a pop to have sex with her.

Zhang Ziyi: the Marilyn Monroe of China in more ways than one

But while the facts (and rumors) are available, the conclusions we in the West are drawing are unfair.  It is a fact that Chinese leaders are rich.  It is fact that they use their power to maintain their wealth and dominance, that they strive to pass power on to their children, and that all of this can be viewed as skewed and corrupt.

Yet those who conclude that this makes China unique, special, or destined for a political reckoning are wrong.  China is, in fact, simply following the American model of political stability.  America’s political elite are, of course, also filthy rich—and perhaps even filthier.  See here for a look at the long reign of millionaire presidents, or do a google search to find out if your Senator or Congressman is in the top 1/10th  of 1% of overall income (more than 50% of Congress is in this uber-elite, millionaires club).

Americans are fine with rich people running the country, and a Supreme Court entirely stacked with Harvard and Yale graduates.  We seem unconsciously to yearn for it (as some noted after Republicans elevated their least favorite but richest candidate for President).  We know our elections are tied to money (if you outspend your opponent in America, you win somewhere between 75-90% of the time).  And here in New York, we are ruled by the richest man in the city, a man who changed the rules to extend his regime into a second decade.

We should not harbor illusions about China.  It is largely run by the rich, for the rich.  Perhaps that’s why it feels, to me, so much like home.


5 responses to “China’s 1% Follow the American Model

  1. I was given your book by my two daughters for Christmas. Devoured it! I have read a lot of travel memiors on China (We lived in Hong Kong for two years -thus the interest in China) and yours is among the best. Funny, insightful, memorable characters. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Jack. Thanks so much for reading! What other China memoirs have you enjoyed?


      • HAve read: Rivertown (of course), Wild Swans, Socialism is Great!, Mr. China, Red Scarf Girl, a few others. All of them wonderful.

        Mike, I am sitting on an (almost finished) manuscript based on my family’s two-years in Hong Kong. Hong Kong -to my knowledge- has not been the focus of a travel memoir in the vein of “Kosher Chinese” or “Rivertown.” Certianly, not from a family perspective. I think their is a niche for my story. From the early feedback I’m getting from my circle of readers is that it’s funny, insightful, and entertaining. But, by my own admission, my manuscript still needs work.

        My question to you -if I may- is how early in the process did you start reaching out to agents? I know from your acknowledgements that you worked with David Peterson and Gillian Blake at Henry Holts. How early in the process did you contact them? In other words, how close to the final product was your manuscript when you started a dialog with agents and then publishers?

        Sorry for the rapid-fire questions. Thanks for you time.

      • Hi Jack. Also check out Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret, if you haven’t read it. One of my favorites.

        I think you’re right– there really isn’t a Hong Kong memoir out there! You could fill that niche. So the question is. . . how to get your manuscript into the hands of an editor. For me, the agent came first, and he used his contacts to find an editor willing to push for Kosher Chinese in house. I found the agent through a friend who knew him– a bit of an inside job– after he had read the earlier version of this blog, which I was writing from China. He liked what he read, and agreed to take me on. The agents are the gatekeepers of the editors; I don’t know if you can get to editors without them.

        My manuscript was VERY rough when Henry Holt bought the book. I think most editors are happy to buy an idea from someone they think has a voice. . . they don’t need a polished final product.

        Not sure if that helps. . .


      • Mike:
        I will check out “Chinese Lessons.” Thanks for the suggestion!
        Mike, I have just one more question for you (regarding Will Lippincott and team). Would you be willing to email me?

        And just for fun, here’s a link to a piece I wrote (“The Wikification of the World”) that the Chicago Tribune picked up and ran in their print edition:

        Jack VanNoord
        Chicago, IL

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