The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Jane Perlez, who grew up in Australia and covered China for The New York Times from 2012 to 2019.
Her first visit to the country was in 1966 as a university student, and she described her experience spanning the decades in an essay for a new book, “The Beijing Bureau,” which chronicles China’s evolution through the eyes of 25 Australian foreign correspondents.
Here is an excerpt from her essay, “Father and Son.”
Xiaolu was different from the rest of what is known as the princeling class — the sons and daughters of the privileged founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xiaolu was easygoing, approachable, willing to talk to outsiders and even slightly candid about what was going on in the upper echelons of the party under the newly installed Xi Jinping. We would meet at an Italian restaurant, where he ordered the same spaghetti dish followed by ice cream every time. His English was passable — he had served as a military attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Britain many years before.
He was by then a senior executive at Anbang, an insurance conglomerate that had risen very fast and then diversified. Executive may be too strong a word. It seemed he was more of a door opener, the guy with connections, but not the guy with the business acumen. He eschewed the tailored suits, coifed hair and polished shoes of Beijing’s business class. He would turn up to lunch in a casual shirt, a gray buzz cut and an unfashionable fabric shoulder bag.
At our first couple of lunches, Xiaolu was relatively circumspect, but I could sense that he had reservations about Xi. As children, they had lived in the same elite compound, Zhongnanhai, located on the edge of Tiananmen Square. Their fathers were both prominent in the pantheon of great men under Mao.
Xiaolu suggested that Xi’s first major initiative, a sweeping anticorruption campaign among party officials, was actually a political purge. Officials had been rendered terrified to make decisions. Bureaucrats were scared of each other. He also made negative comments about Document 9. Released soon after Xi came to power, it listed the Western ideas — constitutional democracy, universal human rights — that the party defined as unacceptable in China. Document 9 was an early signal from Xi that liberals were in for a stormy period. It showed Xi’s determination to enforce authoritarian rule. Xiaolu seemed profoundly disappointed.