Perched on a steep hillside in Changshou township lies the modest family tomb of a military dynasty, overgrown with tall grass and lined with cheap white tiles.
Carved in an ancestral tablet that records the living as well as the dead is the name of Zhang Zhen, the family patriarch, who turns 100 next month and was one of the highest-ranking generals in the People's Liberation Army. Below are his sons. One of them has the job of making sure the soldiers controlling China's nuclear weapons stay loyal to the Communist Party. Another, Zhang Lianyang, was a general before venturing into business and is listed along with his wife, Chen Xiaoying.
The couple appears elsewhere together: on the corporate rolls of Citic 21CN, the telemarketing and pharmaceutical data business now controlled by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and Yunfeng Capital, a private equity company owned in part by Alibaba's chairman, Jack Ma. Ms. Chen is Citic 21CN's executive vice chairwoman, and Mr. Zhang was a director through April.
Alibaba has been one of the big success stories in China, a dominant private company in a country where state-owned enterprises typically command the heights of the economy. Its initial public offering, expected this week, could be the largest debut ever for an Internet company in the United States.
Alibaba's acquisition of Citic 21CN, which was announced in January, provides an example of how the rapid growth of the private sector is also benefiting the country's political elite, the so-called princelings, or relatives of high-ranking officials. Since Alibaba announced that it would buy a controlling stake in Citic 21CN for about $170 million, the pharmaceutical data company's stock has risen more than seven fold. As a result, Ms. Chen's shares have soared in value by about $500 million.
That windfall has been previously reported. But the familial connections, traced to the stone tablet in Changshou, are largely unknown to the general public.
There is no evidence that Alibaba was aware of such connections. The company previously said it bought Citic 21CN for its "vast pool of pharmaceutical product data," as part of an effort to build out technology standards for medical and health information. It was a "pure business decision," according to a person with knowledge of the deal who was not authorized to talk publicly.
Although Alibaba declined to comment for this article, citing regulatory restrictions on public statements ahead of a public offering, the company has said it relies on the market — not political connections — to drive its business.
"To those outsiders who stress companies' various 'backgrounds,' we didn't have them before, we don't have them now, and in the future we won't need them!" the company said in a statement in July after a report that several investment companies tied to the sons and grandsons of senior Communist Party leaders owned stakes in Alibaba, including New Horizon Capital, whose founders include the son of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
Ms.Chen did not respond to repeated requests for an interview made by fax, phone and visits to the company's Hong Kong and Beijing offices.
Citic 21CN's political ties run deep. Until April, its biggest shareholder was a sprawling state-owned conglomerate, the Citic Group, which employs many members of the political elite. Ms. Chen occupies the No. 2 spot at Citic 21CN.
Citic 21CN's chairman until April was Wang Jun, formerly the chairman of the Citic Group. His father, also a general, was China's vice president and pushed for the bloody 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. As part of his work, Mr. Wang was awarded options, which he exercised in March to buy 30 million shares at a price below the market value.
Executives around the world forge ties with politically influential people, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with those connections. In China, top executives often run in the same circles as the political elite, and such relationships are often considered critical for securing licenses and deals.
But the ties, if not properly disclosed, can also prompt questions about a company's transparency and operations. The enrichment of the political elite through share sales and takeovers has set off protests in China, where officials do not need to publicly detail their assets.