BEIJING: In the heady days of the early post-Mao years, as China began opening to the world, a youthful Xi Jinping attended a fortnightly study group with other top leaders' children to network, enjoy friendship and make sense of the change around them.
Mr Xi, now general secretary of the Communist Party, stayed close with the group as they worked the long and sometimes treacherous path towards the apex of the party, as their fathers had before them, and came to identify as Hongerdai, or ''Second Generation Red''.
Members include Politburo standing committee member Wang Qishan, who is in charge of fighting corruption; People's Liberation Army navy commissar Liu Xiaojiang; PLA general logistics department director Liu Yuan; and China Development Bank chairman Chen Yuan.
Stayed close ... Chinese Communist Party Secretary General and the country's new leader Xi Jinping. Photo: Andy Wong
At the time of their study group, in 1979 and 1980, their parents comprised a Who's Who of Chinese politics, including Guangdong party boss Xi Zhongxun, vice premier Bo Yibo, party vice-chairman Chen Yun and head of security Peng Zhen.
Chairman Mao had fallen out of fashion, but the Second Generation Red have made sure he will never be forgotten.
The convener of the close-knit study group was Hu Shiying, son of Hu Qiaomu, whose work as Chairman Mao's premier writer was held in such esteem that Deng Xiaoping dubbed him ''the Party's First Pen''.
''Members included Xi Jinping, Liu Yuan, Bo Xicheng, Wang Qishan,'' recalled Mr Hu, nostalgically, on December 26, at a Beijing celebration of Mao's birthday. ''We met a couple of times each month.'' The memorial of Mao's 119th birthday was hosted by leaders of Utopia, the neo-Maoist internet platform shut down last year for its ferocious advocacy of the leaders' fallen hero, Bo Xilai. Bo's younger brother, Bo Xicheng, was a member of Mr Hu's original study group and remains in the circle.
Mr Hu told the group the memory of Mao had moved him to tears. ''I was born by the side of Chairman Mao, most of my childhood was spent at his side and in my heart he is more like a father than my own father,'' Mr Hu said, according to a speech on the website of one of his many business and quasi-official organisations.
''When we sang The East is Red there were several moments where I couldn't continue because my eyes had welled with tears,'' he said. ''Why? Because I feel such emotion has been lost for many years; those present today are all my family members; we are Mao's family members.''
Observers are wondering whether other members of the Second Generation Red, who now run China, are also reviving their Mao family emotions.
The Mao faithful are hoping, and liberal intellectuals and private entrepreneurs are worried, that Mr Xi will symbolically foreclose any short-term possibility of political reform by holding a big celebration of Mao's 120th birthday at the end of this year.
''This is a big test,'' said He Weifang, a lawyer who was involved in building the political case against Bo Xilai. ''This is an important occasion and requires Xi to deliver a speech or make some decision.''
Mr Hu was also accompanied at the Mao memorial by his sister, Hu Muying. She has remained close to her brother's original circle and now leads a large Second Generation Red organisation called the Fellowship of Children of Yan'an.
On Saturday, at the fellowship's Spring Festival reunion, Ms Hu urged the Second Generation Red to get involved in ''affairs of state''. And unlike previous years, when she was dismissive of earlier leaders, she gave a stirring endorsement of Mr Xi's administration for leading the Party back to the socialist path.