socialist family business By
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delight in chastising the millionaire wives of
Russian and Chinese politicians. Although depicted
as a stain of corruption, this phenomenon is
pivotal to post-socialist transformation. Not only
North Korea, Belarus, Cuba and Kazakhstan, but
China and Russia have evolved into family-based
societies. No mere nepotism, these socialist
political families maintain order in countries
with few legitimate institutions.
family allows a division of labor essential to the
functioning of post-socialist conglomerates. It
coordinates the far-flung markets for capital,
financing, contract enforcement, and mass media
which were once rigidly
controlled by the party. A ruling family typically
consists of a household head who is charged with
political duties, a wife who manages business
interactions, a brother who is entrusted with
propaganda, and Ivy-League children who forge
connections with the West.
were emblematic of the Russian ruling family.
Former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, styling
himself as a get-things-done manager, was the
first Russian politician to create an effective
post-Soviet ideology. With a degree in chemistry
and a flair for bee-keeping, he offered a unique
brand of state socialism. The "Russian tradition
in political economy," Luzhkov declared at a
conference I attended, was based in a partnership
between an activist state and patriotic captains
of industry. By amalgamating nostalgia for Tsarism
with the glory of the Communists, Luzhkov showed
that he was an independent leader who stood above
the bureaucracy. He was especially skilled at
re-centering politics on family values through the
use of architecture.
The mayor resurrected
the enormous Christ the Savior Cathedral, the apex
of Russian Orthodox life. Other monuments, such as
a Godzilla-sized Peter the Great, emphasized the
need for bold leadership. Luzhkov's police force
was admired for harassing out-of-town bumpkins and
dark-skinned pedestrians, as well as bashing
gay-pride parades. Luzhkov stridently defended the
rights of ethnic-Russians in former Soviet Union
republics. He was careful to back up demagogy with
pocket-book measures such as the punctual payment
Luzhkov's wife is the
construction mogul Elena Baturina, a rare female
oligarch with whom he cultivated relationships
with regional leaders, notably with the
powerbrokers of the Caucuses.
Chinese analogue was the Bo family unit. Bo Xilai,
son of a founder of modern China, was until
recently the Chongqing Party Committee Secretary.
Bo Xilai promoted wistfulness for Mao Zedong by
erecting statues and reviving revolutionary
operas, while fighting exotic mafia kingpins.
Emphasizing social welfare, Bo forged a political
base in the lower classes. Far from a Maoist, Bo
exploited the symbolism of the communist code. By
re-imagining of the past, Bo seemed to be a hero
who stood against bureaucratic routine.
The scandalous death of a British
businessman has focused attention on the Bo family
and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, who has been detained
suspect in the murder. Gu, like Bo, is the
offspring of a revolutionary hero. She is alleged
to have abused her husband's posts to create
business opportunities. Gu established a
consultancy that 'aided' businessmen seeking to
develop property in areas where her husband
reigned. Bo Xilai's older brother heads a
state-owned company involved in finance. Xilai's
son, Guagua is a graduate student at Harvard
University. Besides his colorful social life, he
is known for his skill at connecting foreigners
with the Chinese elite.
The family thus
integrates politics, economics, foreign relations
and ideology in, perhaps, the only way possible
for post-socialist societies. The Bo and Luzhkov
family units usurped the function once performed
by their respective countries' communist parties.
These families fostered an above-party-politics,
activist ideology. Both became a threat to the
just-emerging hierarchy of elite families.
In 2010, Luzhkov was tar-and-feathered by
numerous prime-time documentaries. This brouhaha
led directly to Russia's first mass protests in a
decade. For those who followed the news, it now
seemed clear that the broadsides of marginalized
opposition critics were true. Their allegations
were repeated on the state-controlled television.
Nevertheless, it was not the Internet that
fomented the street protests. Luzhkov's dismissal
caused a jamming signal to be sent to Russia's
ruling families. These families were warned that
their function of coordinating a non-market,
non-democratic system was no longer acceptable.
Only after hectic months was Vladimir Putin able
to renegotiate the social contract with Russia's
Chinese officials seek to
preempt a scandal by publicly condemning the Bo
family. But as with Luzhkov's ouster, this will
radically disrupt the consensus among the elite.
Chris Monday is an assistant
professor at Dongseo University in South Korea
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