BEIJING -- When Maoists were trying to keep control of China in the 1970s, a powerful general from the south came to the aid of moderates, helping to arrest the radicals and throw them in jail. The bold actions of the general, Ye Jianying, paved the way for the country's move to a more market-oriented economy, and created a political dynasty that still plays kingmaker, able to influence national policy and protect its sprawling business empire in southern China.
Over the past year, according to party insiders familiar with the situation, Mr. Ye's children -- the general died in 1986 at age 89 -- have helped organize meetings to criticize the country's current course, and have influenced top military appointments while also helping block a vocal economic reformer from joining the Politburo's Standing Committee, the small, powerful group at the top of the party hierarchy, because they felt that he was not attentive to their interests.
The rise of so-called princelings like the Ye family will reach a capstone this week, when Xi Jinping, himself the son of a Communist Party pioneer, is to be unveiled as China's top leader at the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress. Mr. Xi is likely to be joined by at least two other princelings on the Standing Committee.
Despite rising controversy over their prominent role in government and business -- highlighted by recent corruption cases, including one that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, the once-powerful princeling whose wife was found guilty of murder -- China's princelings, who number in the hundreds, are emerging as an aristocratic class that has an increasingly important say in ruling the country.
While they feud and fight among themselves, many princelings have already made their mark in the established order, playing important roles in businesses, especially state-owned enterprises. Others are heavily involved in finance or lobbying, where personal connections are important.
"Many countries have powerful families, but in China, they are becoming the dominant force in politics and business," said Lü Xiaobo, a political science professor at Columbia University. "In this system, they have good bloodlines." Many of the oldest among them -- those now set to take power -- share something else: an upbringing during some of China's most difficult years. Many were children during the Great Leap Forward, when upward of 30 million people died of famine from 1958 to 1962, and teenagers during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, a period many spent as outcasts or in exile after their parents were attacked by Maoist radicals.
"This is a volatile generation, one that didn't have a systematic education and often saw the worst side of the Communist revolution," said a senior party journalist who grew up with some of China's princelings and asked for anonymity because of pressure from China's security apparatus. "They've learned one thing, and that's all you can count on is your family."
The princelings are distinct from the current top rulers of China, most of whom owe their allegiance to institutions in the Communist Party. The outgoing party general secretary, Hu Jintao, rose up through the Communist Youth League, one of the party's key bodies. Likewise, the premier, Wen Jiabao, who leaves office next year, is an organization man with few outside sources of power.
Mr. Hu's legitimacy derives from being appointed by Deng Xiaoping, the last leader to have played a central role in the Chinese Revolution and a dominant figure until his death in 1997. Mr. Deng had a series of general secretaries and premiers whom he dismissed before settling on Jiang Zemin after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Later, he gave Mr. Hu the nod as Mr. Jiang's successor.
"Without a Deng to settle questions, you have competition for the top spots," said an independent Chinese political commentator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is under police observation during the congress. "We don't have elections, and we don't have a system, so they go for the person with the most connections."
That was evident five years ago when Mr. Xi was picked to be Mr. Hu's successor. Initially, the front-runner had been one of Mr. Hu's protégés, Li Keqiang. But Mr. Xi won a higher-ranking slot, with the help of another princeling, Zeng Qinghong, then vice president and son of a security minister.
Mr. Xi's career reflects his status. His father had been a senior party leader for half a century: military commissar, governor, vice premier and pioneer of economic reforms, a background that helped create a network of support for Mr. Xi.
The elder Mr. Xi arranged a slot for his son in a university during the Cultural Revolution when few were allowed to study, then secured him a job as personal secretary to one of the country's top military leaders. Later, when Mr. Xi was working in local government and ran afoul of a provincial leader, his family got him transferred to a province run by a friend of his father's.
Mr. Li, by contrast, chiefly had his formal party affiliations and the backing of Mr. Hu, but no deeply rooted network of family power. That proved decisive when he had to compete with Mr. Xi for the top slot. (Mr. Li is set to replace Mr. Wen as premier.)
"The leaders produced by the 18th Party Congress are the first generation that weren't appointed" by a figure like Deng, said Zheng Yongnian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. "It's the first generation made through political competition."
Princelings are far from a uniform bloc. Many grew up in Beijing's "big yards" -- the sprawling housing compounds of the ministries and Communist Party organizations that defined the capital in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Children of senior leaders studied together, played together and, during the Cultural Revolution, fought each other in Red Guard factions that resembled inner-city gangs.
Many of those tensions spill over today. Last year, the Ye family helped organize a meeting of princelings whose parents participated in the 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, the group of Maoists who had dominated politics in the last years of Mao Zedong's life and threatened to keep control after the dictator's death. With Mr. Xi's half-sister taking notes, the Ye family and other princelings met to criticize China's current direction, saying the Communist Party had become corrupt and distant from the people.
But the meeting was divided over how far to push political changes. Those close to Hu Deping, the son of Hu Yaobang, the reformist general secretary deposed by Mr. Deng in the 1980s, have been clamoring for a relaxation of the party's dominance over government and business. Others, including those in the Ye family, reflect their patriarch's belief in party control and are wary of changes that could undermine their lucrative business ties.
Those ties are extensive, especially in Guangdong, near Hong Kong, where they ran into partial conflict with the province's party secretary, Wang Yang, who has preached against corruption and nepotism. The general's various family members have served as provincial governor, mayor of a special economic zone, head of an influential securities firm, founder of a real-estate firm and chief executive of an industrial and media group. While Mr. Wang, the son of a laborer, did not investigate the Ye family or challenge its status, party insiders say he did not concern himself enough with its interests to satisfy the family. Starting last year, some family members began whispering that Mr. Wang was not politically reliable, according to party officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the information. Partly as a result of this campaign, Mr. Wang is not expected to be on the Standing Committee when it is unveiled Thursday.
China's ruling body, however, will be heavily stacked with princelings.
Yu Zhengsheng, currently the Shanghai party secretary, has a glittering family résumé that includes relatives who served the Qing emperors, the Kuomintang government, and as senior leaders in the People's Republic. Another expected member, Wang Qishan, is married to the daughter of a powerful leader, Yao Yilin. A third likely member of the Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang, is the son of an army major general, which some analysts say qualifies him for princeling status, too.
Mr. Xi's widespread contacts in the military and bureaucracy may allow him to act more vigorously than Mr. Hu. But some analysts caution that his connections to other princelings could make bold action difficult.
"There are a certain number of princelings who are benefiting from the system," said Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing and the son of a former minister. "So there are a number of them who don't want any change." Advocates of systemic reform like Mr. Zhang look askance at the rise of the princelings. In imperial days, when emperors and their relatives ruled the country, nepotism was prevalent. When the Communist Party took over, idealists hoped that it would guard against that. "But for some reason, we're now back to nepotism," Mr. Zhang said. "And the country is ruled by a few families."
Edward Wong contributed reporting, and Mia Li contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.