TOKYO -- The Chinese word "Taizidang," usually translated as "princelings," means the offspring of prominent senior officials of China's Communist Party. China's current paramount leader, Xi Jinping, is a classic example of this powerful and privileged class.
If this term is used in a broader sense to mean influential politicians with a strong political pedigree, such as the sons and daughters of former presidents and prime ministers, it can be said that princelings dominate the ranks of political leaders in East Asia.
Besides Chinese President Xi, the list also includes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
Seven East Asian countries, or more than 40% of the 17 countries and areas in the region, are led by a "princeling." In Northeast Asia, in particular, two-thirds of the six countries and areas in the sub-region are under the leadership of a scion of the political nobility. Four princelings - Abe, Xi, Park and Kim - define the landscape of political leadership in Northeast Asia.
The relations among the four leaders are fraught with tension, with the exception of the relatively friendly ties between Xi and Park.
Behind the strained relationships among them are complex and entangled webs stretching to politics, historical grievances and other factors. But one psychological tendency common to all four appears to be intensifying the tension.
Their inclination is to focus on the past rather than look toward the future. On Dec. 26, two of the four leaders took actions that highlighted this tendency.
The day marked the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong, the founding father of communist China. Xi visited the Mao mausoleum on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to pay his respects to the late leader.
About an hour later, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.
Xi's visit to the Mao mausoleum was an official, carefully scripted event carried out according to advance arrangements.
In contrast, Abe's surprise move, which appeared to have been made on the spur of the moment, was cast as a private visit to the shrine, which is dedicated to war dead but also enshrines Japan's wartime leaders convicted of war crimes.
Despite the seeming differences in the nature of their actions, both Abe and Xi faced similar criticism for their behavior. They were belabored for failing to face up to the past of their respective nations head-on.
Yasukuni Shrine, where so-called Class-A war criminals are honored along with general war dead, is seen by many as a symbol of Japan's militarist past.
Mao's critics hold him responsible for the disasters caused by his two drastic policy initiatives - the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign to modernize the country through labor-intensive methods of industrialization which resulted in over 30 million deaths through famine. The Cultural Revolution was a decade-long social-political movement to enforce communism by renewing the spirit of the Chinese Revolution that caused destruction and confusion across the nation.
Through the actions they took about a week ago, Abe and Xi both ignored critical views about certain chapters of their nations' histories and asserted their own thoughts about the histories.
In retrospect, the political slogans Abe and Xi adopted around the time they came into power reflected nostalgia for the past. Abe pledged to "restore Japan," while Xi equated the China Dream with "fulfilling the great renaissance of the Chinese race."
It seems that the two leaders are pursuing ghosts of the past instead of charting a new course for their countries.
North Korean leader Kim has been treating the last instructions of his father, who died two years ago, as infallible rules by following them to the letter.
South Korean President Park has been stubbornly refusing to make any serious effort to pursue future-oriented relations with Japan, as if in revolt against her father, Park Chung-hee. He established a formal diplomatic relationship with Japan with his eyes toward the future.
Nicolas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, a global human rights group, who has been following human rights problems in China, argues Xi, a princeling, can make bolder and more courageous political decisions than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whom he likens to a "shopkeeper."
To be sure, Xi has made some important political achievements during his first year in office. In particular, the blueprint for reform he unveiled in November put the Xi administration in stark contrast to the previous leadership, which often showed signs of indecisiveness and dithering.
Bequelin's analysis can also be applied to Abe, who has launched some bold policy initiatives. He tapped Haruhiko Kuroda as governor of the Bank of Japan to implement powerful monetary easing programs. He has also created the Japanese version of the National Security Council and enacted new legislation to protect state secrets.
North Korea's Kim has made a series of moves that have taken the world by surprise. He has purged most of his top aides and advisers in about two years, including his uncle-in-law, Jang Sung Taek. Shockingly, Jang, who was vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and considered to be No. 2 in the government and a mentor to Kim, was brutally executed.
Princelings may be bolder and more daring than ordinary politicians, as Bequelin says. These characteristics could be helpful for the East Asian leaders, but could also be detrimental to their leadership performances. In particular, their tendency to focus more on the past than on the future could be dangerous.
They should try to rein in excessive nationalism at home in order to expand cooperation between their countries to ensure that they can develop and prosper together. Instead, however, they appear to be dredging up nationalistic sentiments among the public to enhance their power bases. As a result, the diplomatic situation in Northeast Asia is as volatile and restless as ever, with international tension mounting fast.
Heightening tension in the region has been used as a convenient excuse for tightening restrictions on people's freedom and ramping up defense spending. Such moves then intensify tension further in a vicious cycle.
In other words, these princelings are supporting each other by antagonizing each other. In the end, it's the people of these nations who will have to pay the price for this dangerous game.