The middle-aged Chinese woman who answers the door apologizes for the wait as she stands in the entryway, sporting leopard-print slippers. She’s been exercising, she says. Two tiny dogs, fuzzy like the slippers, yap at her feet.
The brick home has a well-tended lawn, a few shrubs dividing it from the neighbors. It’s a generous property, almost indistinguishable from the rest in this suburban development in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Song Zhaozhao has a practical haircut and a quiet demeanor. A nurse at the University of Michigan’s hospital, she earns about $82,000 a year. She shares the house with her American husband, Alan, who used to work for Ford Motor Co.
Despite the trappings of middle-class America, she is anything but ordinary: She and her siblings are the closest thing China has to aristocracy.
Their father fought together with Mao Zedong in the Chinese revolution and was a top official until he fell from favor in 1968. Zhaozhao spent her teenage years with her parents in internal exile, sharing a mud-brick house on a labor farm in northern China. After Mao’s death in 1976, General Song Renqiong returned to the nation’s leadership, and is considered one of the “Eight Immortals” of the Communist Party who revived the shattered economy and society.
At least five of the general’s eight children have lived in the U.S., with three daughters becoming citizens and a son obtaining his green card. Their family is the most extreme example of the pull that the U.S. -- “beautiful country” in Chinese -- has on the Immortals’ descendants. The fortunes, family ties and business interests of 103 people, the Immortals’ direct descendants and their spouses, were mapped by Bloomberg News in a survey published today.
The siblings found opportunity in the U.S., not just to educate their children and themselves, they say, but to start businesses and leave behind the chaos and trauma of the Cultural Revolution. In the country held up as the antithesis of China’s ideals, they could lead anonymous and simple lives that adhered, ironically, more closely to the values of public service and egalitarianism espoused by their Communist parents. Their choices in many cases contrast with those of some other Immortal families, who pursued lives of privilege after Ivy-League educations and Wall Street training.
Zhaozhao’s eldest brother, Song Kehuang, who spends time in the U.S. twice a year at his family home in Irvine, California, says he regrets the fact that the wealth and power of the princeling class made some of his counterparts forget their roots.
“Chairman Mao’s strictness made sure there were basically no special privileges,” he says of his Beijing school days in the 1950s and 1960s. “Back then we compared the patches on our pants. The more patches we had, the more honorable we felt.”
As China’s Communist Party was anointing new leaders last month in a once-in-a-decade transition decided behind closed doors, Zhaozhao says she voted for U.S. President Barack Obama for a second time.
The youngest Song child, she is clearly uncomfortable that a reporter has come to find her in Ann Arbor. She relents enough to spend a few minutes answering questions. She says their father didn’t tell them what to do.
“He let us make our own decisions,” Zhaozhao says. “He wanted us to choose our own life.”
For families that lived at the pinnacle of the turbulent politics of Communist China’s beginnings, experiencing imprisonment, banishment and humiliation during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, the U.S. offered an insurance policy, says Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies China’s political elite.
About a third of the Immortals’ 103 descendants and their spouses lived, worked or studied in the U.S., attending elite Massachusetts prep schools and Ivy League universities and learning skills at the likes of Morgan Stanley in New York, the Bloomberg study showed.
“The clever rabbit has three holes,” Fewsmith says, quoting a Chinese proverb. “They can diversify their assets, get an education and ensure themselves an exit strategy if anything goes wrong.”
Things went badly wrong for the Songs during the Cultural Revolution, a decade when most of the Immortals were imprisoned or sent to remote parts of the country where they couldn’t pose a threat to Mao’s power.
Zhaozhao was 11 when the Cultural Revolution began. Her brother, Kehuang, was later denounced as a counter-revolutionary and hounded by classmates at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“I totally hated it,” Zhenzhen, a middle sister who lives in San Francisco, says in a telephone interview, taking the call while riding her bike. “Everybody was a liar -- you just couldn’t trust anybody. You say something and people turn around and report it.”
Their older sister, Binbin, became one of the most recognizable faces of the Red Guards -- the troops of students who worshipped Mao -- after pinning the group’s armband on Mao himself at a Tiananmen Square rally in August 1966. She earned a nickname from the chairman: Yaowu, meaning “be militant.”
That month, Red Guards at her elite girls’ school killed a teacher, with some accounts holding Binbin responsible.
Binbin left China a few years after the Cultural Revolution was over, settling in the Boston area with her husband, a U.S. citizen, as graduate students. After receiving a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, she went to work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the air assessment branch of its Department of Environmental Protection, according to school and state records.
She sent her son, Jin Yan, to Phillips Academy Andover, a prestigious school whose motto is Non Sibi, or Not for Self. He then went on to Stanford University.
Little else speaks of wealth. She receives a pension from Massachusetts of a little more than $18,000 a year, according to the Boston Herald’s “Your tax dollars at work” database of records released under the state’s public records law.
After more than 30 years in the U.S., Binbin, now 65, returned to China in the past decade, and has begun to address her history. In an essay published this year, she defended herself, saying she tried to stop the attack on her teacher.
“I now realize that this collective disregard for life is an important reason for the tragedy,” she wrote. “I hope that our nation, our country, will never again go through such turmoil and tragedy.”
Binbin didn’t respond to an interview request made through her Beijing-based technology company, Copia, which she took over following the death of her U.S.-born Chinese husband in 2011.
Zhenzhen, who lives on one of San Francisco’s famously steep streets near Golden Gate Park, was determined to go abroad.
As a teenager in China, she says she worked to catch up on her education. She didn’t get a high-school degree because of the Cultural Revolution, when she was sent to be a farm worker in the southeast. She still managed to graduate from college in the coastal city of Fuzhou. She went on to graduate school in Beijing, studying computers and how to process satellite images.
It was in Fuzhou that she had met her husband, Chen Fang, the son of Chen Yun, China’s top economic official in the early 1980s. Like aristocrats in Europe, two of the country’s leading families were joined by marriage. It didn’t last.
Once in the U.S., Zhenzhen decided she wanted to stay.
“I just wanted to be truly who I am, I don’t need to watch what I can say and what I cannot say,” she says. “I went through that in the Cultural Revolution.”
She has spent much of the past 20 years in the San Francisco Bay area, moving from the technology sector to private equity and working at companies including American International Group Inc. Now she’s creating a startup in e-commerce that’s focused on online payments.
She lives with an American she met at a dance and has studied Buddhism. “I believe in good karma,” she says.
Their brother, Song Kehuang, a Chinese Communist Party member, owns the $950,000 home in Irvine with his wife and son Miller, who are both American citizens. Kehuang holds a green card, conferring permanent residency in the U.S., he says in a telephone interview from southern China’s Guangdong province.
Kehuang, 67, went to Beijing’s elite No. 4 High School with Chen Yuan, another son of Chen Yun who’s now chairman of China Development Bank Corp. Kehuang says their father, who died in 2005, instilled in the family a mindset that they should never flaunt their family background.
Some members of the Song family did stay in China, moving up the ranks of state-owned enterprises and setting up private companies. Song Qin, the oldest sister, ran a dairy company in northeastern China, the area their father once oversaw. She couldn’t be reached for comment. Kehuang himself heads a real-estate investment company that listed on its website China Development Bank and China Poly Group -- once run by relatives of Immortals Deng Xiaoping and Wang Zhen -- as partners.
The family patriarch, Song Renqiong, taught his offspring to be guarded about their connections and privilege, according to grandson Miller Song, 33.
His grandfather was “very strict” about not using his name for personal gain, and Miller was taught as a child in China never to tell others about his family background, he says, in order to avoid special treatment. If his grandfather gave him a ride to school, Miller says he got out a few blocks away, so the other children wouldn’t see the car.
Only his closest childhood friends knew his link to China’s revolutionary legacy, according to Miller -- though anyone who recognizes his grandfather would notice a photograph of him under the title “heroes” on Miller’s MySpace page.
Miller Song says he first came to the U.S. for a year when he was 12, and returned at 15 to complete high school and college in California.
“It’s very common for Chinese parents to send their kids overseas for school because they believe that the U.S. offers better education,” he said in an e-mail.
He started a U.S. company, PatchTogether Inc., making plastic statuettes and custom T-shirts, with $10,000 borrowed from his parents. He says he lives mostly in China, to be closer to family and friends and to the factories that make PatchTogether’s products.
“I am not very Americanized as some of the kids that went in their earlier age and at the same time, I am not very Chinese either,” he said in the e-mail. “I think I am pretty even, 50-50 between the two cultures.”
Though the Song family moved out of the walled Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing that has served as home to the leaders of the People’s Republic starting with Chairman Mao, they remain part of a community. Families that grew up together include the descendants of Chen Yun, Kehuang and Miller say.
Chen Yun’s son, Chen Yuan, sent both of his children to study in the U.S. beginning in high school. His daughter, Chen Xiaodan, also known as Sabrina, works at a private equity firm in Hong Kong. She was a debutante at the 2006 Bal des Debutantes in Paris, wearing a plum Oscar de la Renta gown. Count Edouard du Monceau de Bergendal from Belgium was her partner at the dance, according to the ball’s website.
When Zhaozhao answers the door in Ann Arbor, she’s wearing pajamas and a maroon fleece vest.
After the Cultural Revolution, she studied nursing and worked in China, she says, before following Zhenzhen to Ann Arbor. There, her sister urged her to study economics. “I didn’t like it,” she says, and so she went back to nursing.
Since her parents passed away, her visits to China are infrequent -- discouraged by the long plane ride, she adds. She likes the diversity and culture in Ann Arbor, and doesn’t know if she’ll ever move back to China.
In fact, she resists talking about China. She voted for Obama because she saw the economy and the housing market rebounding in Ann Arbor, and because he ended the war in Iraq. But ask about Chinese politics and she evades the question.
“I was taught by my family never use their power or connections to do things for ourselves,” she says. “We’re just living in life as every other person.”