The King’s Men and Others: Emerging Political Elites under Xi Jinping
Saturday, June 1, 2019
Large-scale elite upward mobility has been taking place in Xi Jinping’s China. Who has attained critical positions under Xi’s leadership? How did they achieve such career advancements? Focusing on those elites who have emerged in recent years at or above the deputy provincial and vice-ministerial levels in the power hierarchy of the narrowly defined CCP and state administrative apparatuses, this article outlines seven groups that established close connections with Xi Jinping during the various stages of his life before rising to national power; it then analyzes how sub-mainstream and non-mainstream paths of elite advancements have also worked in a marginal sense due to the so-called “cascade impact” and the “bandwagon effect.”
One of the most important moves for a political leader is to place his/her own people in key positions; this is especially the case for a dictator, who, as part of the politics of rule by man, must rely on subordinates whom he (or she, in rare cases) trusts. After Xi Jinping assumed national power in the fall 2012, a large number of new political elites have emerged in China, especially at or above the deputy provincial and vice-ministerial levels. Among the eighteen members of the current Politburo, sixteen are new; all of the twenty-five provincial party secretaries who are not concurrently Politburo members were newly appointed to their positions after December 2012; among the incumbent provincial governors, all, with the exception of two, were promoted to their positions after January 2016, as the two exceptions, both from ethnic minority regions, also attained their positions under Xi though somewhat earlier, in March 2013 and December 2014, respectively. At the lower levels, by the end of April 2019, among the 258 nationwide standing members of the provincial party committees (excluding the secretaries and military members), 220 were newly promoted during the Xi era, representing 85 percent of the total. Who precisely are these people who have attained positions of leadership during the Xi Jinping period? What enabled them to achieve such career advancements?
Attempting to answer these questions, this article will outline seven channels for mainstream elite emergence in Xi’s China, and then it will analyze how sub-mainstream and non-mainstream paths of elite advancement also work in a marginal sense. Due to limited space, the empirical coverage will focus on elites who emerged at and above the deputy provincial and vice-ministerial levels (副省部级) in the power hierarchy within the narrowly defined CCP and state administrative apparatuses. It will not deal with the newly emerging political elites in the military, SOEs, and other sectors. The temporal coverage begins with the years since Xi came to power in October 2012, but the emphasis is on the past 1.5 years since the October 2017 Nineteenth Party Congress.
Mobilizing Life-Experience Connections: Xi Jinping’s Men Arise from Seven Groups
Xi Jinping came to the position of CCP general secretary with a weak power base, but since then he has very effectively managed to promote his own people to significant political positions. Accordingly, new elites achieved upward mobility on a large scale under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Who are those persons who have newly attained significant career advancements? The answer is simple and straightforward: those who had close connections with Xi during the early periods of his life experiences.
These people generally belong to one of seven groups, and they were all connected to Xi during various stages of his life experiences before he achieved national power. At the Nineteenth Party Congress, the most prominent figures in these groups entered the Politburo, giving Xi a majority in this powerful decision-making body. Meanwhile, many cadres in these groups also rapidly rose to various other key positions in the Chinese party-state system. In the following, each of these groups will be briefly described:
1) The “Second Red Generation”: This phrase refers to those people whose parents early on had joined the Communist Revolution and then became high-ranking leaders of the PRC. They all share similar family backgrounds with Xi Jinping; some were Xi’s schoolmates at a young age; some are descendants of the revolutionary friends of Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), Xi Jinping’s father. Representative figures in this group include Zhang Youxia (张又侠), a military leader sitting in the Politburo, and Liu He (刘鹤), who oversees the economy on behalf of Xi.  Li Zhanshu (栗战书) and Wang Qishan (王岐山) are marginal members of this group, but their relationships with Xi can be traced to other ties, as will be discussed below. In general, most in this group have already reached retirement age, which implies that, because of different retirement ages for cadres at different levels in the hierarchy, there are few members of this group, with Bu Xiaolin (布小林), chairwoman of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, as an example, at the lower levels of the party hierarchy. All three of examples (Zhang Youxia, Liu He, and Bu Xiaolin) had held relatively low marginal positions, but they were rapidly promoted under Xi.
2) Shaanxi: This is Xi’s home province, where Xi spent six years (1969–1975) as a young farmer during the Cultural Revolution among the sent-down youth. After Xi assumed national power, cadres with a Shaanxi background, either through local family ties, having had work experience in the province, or those, like Xi, who were sent-down to Shaanxi during the late Mao period, have emerged to the national political stage. Among those local persons, Li Xi (李希), now party secretary of Guangdong province, is perhaps the most prominent, followed by figures such as Wang Dongfeng (王东峰), now party secretary of Hebei province, Jing Junhai (景俊海), governor of Jilin province, and Qi Yu (齐玉), party secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (after an unusual job transfer from the Central Organization Department with no foreign-affairs experience). Zhao Leji (赵乐际) may also be considered part of this group, but he made decisive political career advances prior to the Xi era. Wang Qishan is of course an eminent leader who shares with Xi Jinping both a mutual friendship and a sent-down youth experience in Shaanxi. However, Wang Chen (王晨), now no. 2 leader on the National People’s Congress (NPC), is more typical because his rise to the Politburo can very much be attributed to his early ties with Xi Jinping in Shaanxi as a sent-down youth.
3) Tsinghua University: Xi Jinping attended this prestigious university (1975–1979) as a so-called worker-peasant-soldier student (工农兵学员). During that time, he introduced his classmate Chen Xi (陈希) to the CCP, and after Xi achieved national power, Chen rose from party secretary of Tsinghua University to tsar of CCP organizational affairs. Following Chen Xi’s promotion, a new Tsinghua gang, unlike Hu Jintao’s (胡锦涛) Tsinghua gang, has risen in Chinese politics, including Hu Heping (胡和平), former Tsinghua University party secretary and now party secretary of Shaanxi province, and Chen Jining (陈吉宁), former Tsinghua president and now mayor of Beijing. Born in 1962, Hu Heping is now the youngest provincial party secretary in China; born in 1964, Chen Jining is also among the youngest of his political peers.
4) Hebei: Xi began his local political experience in Zhengding (正定), a suburban county of the provincial capital city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province. At the time, Xi was relatively inexperienced in politics, and his career advancement in Hebei was not as smooth as expected. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Xi from establishing friendships with some young local cadres whose friendships would be very significant. Li Zhanshu, who had also been a county cadre in Hebei in the 1980s, entered the Politburo at the Eighteenth Party Congress (2012) and became China’s no. 3 leader at the Nineteenth Party Congress. Yang Zhenwu (杨振武), People’s Daily correspondent stationed in Shijiazhuang during the time Xi was in Zhengding, also rapidly emerged from a deputy-ministerial cadre to be now in charge of the NPC’s daily operations.
5) Fujian: Xi worked in Fujian for a fairly long period (1985–2002), during which time he steadily moved up the political hierarchy. Many of Xi’s former subordinates in Fujian have attained key positions under Xi’s leadership, two of whom (who had also worked with Xi in Zhejiang) became members of the Nineteenth Politburo: Cai Qi (蔡奇), now party secretary of Beijing, and Huang Kunming (黄坤明), China’s propaganda tsar. The second tier in the Fujian group is constituted by people such as He Lifeng (何立峰), head of the State Commission for Development and Reform, Liu Cigui (刘赐贵), party secretary of Hainan province, Song Tao (宋涛), minister of the CCP Foreign Liaison Department who now plays a vital role in China’s relations with the DPRK, and Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), China’s “Internet tsar” since the summer of 2018. Even at lower levels, cadres from Fujian now hold many important positions. For example, among the eleven leaders of the Ministry of Public Security, four have a Fujian background, including Wang Xiaohong (王小洪), no. 2 leader in the ministry who is widely expected to become no. 1 during the next personnel reshuffling; Deng Weiping (邓卫平), supervisor of party discipline in the ministry; Xu Ganlu (许甘露), who is in charge of PRC border control and, according to rumor, is slated to be promoted to a higher-level position, perhaps to a provincial governor; and Lin Rui (林锐), the youngest among the eleven (born in 1967), a hopeful to succeed Wang Xiaohong so as to continue Xi’s tight control over the police. In addition, three other deputy ministers of public security have looser connections with Xi based on their family backgrounds or through work experience in Shaanxi and Zhejiang.
6) Zhejiang: When Xi was provincial party secretary (2002–2007) in Zhejiang, he acted like a local emperor who controlled all organizational and personnel affairs within the province. Therefore, Zhejiang represents Xi’s major power base, with even more elites from Zhejiang joining the central government than elites from Fujian; the special term of Zhijiang xinjun (之江新军), meaning “new troops from Zhijiang”, with Zhijiang as a nickname for Zhejiang, was accordingly created to refer to those rising political stars in Xi’s China with a Zhejiang background. In addition to Cai Qi and Huang Kunming, two other former Zhejiang provincial leaders became Politburo members at the Nineteenth Party Congress, Chen Miner (陈敏尔), now party secretary of Chongqing, and Li Qiang (李强), party secretary of Shanghai, who are expected to join the next Standing Committee of the Politburo. In the second tier of the national party-state apparatus, former Zhejiang provincial party secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) is currently in charge of daily administration of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a Senate-like organization; Chen Yixin (陈一新), who four years ago was still a sub-provincial-level cadre, is now secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission; Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), former chief correspondent of the Xinhua News Agency in Zhejiang and, later, in Shanghai, now serves as head the entire system of national television and broadcasting. In the localities, at least two provincial party secretaries hail from Ningbo, a harbor city in Zhejiang province, including Bayin Chaolu (巴音朝鲁) in Jilin and Liu Qi (刘齐) in Jiangxi. Formerly, they were both subordinates of Xi in Zhejiang. Moreover, at least four provincial governors or mayors had important work experience in Zhejiang, including Ying Yong (应勇) in Shanghai, Gong Zheng (龚正) in Shandong, Tang Yijun (唐一军) in Liaoning, and Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生) in Shanxi. Their future career advances are almost certain when the next opportunity emerges.
7) Shanghai: Xi was also the no. 1 leader in Shanghai, but while in Shanghai, as opposed to when he was in Zhejiang, Xi only weakly dominated personnel appointments. This was due to Jiang Zemin’s (江泽民) long-time dominance in Shanghai politics. Those persons with a Shanghai background who have been promoted since Xi became party chief cannot entirely be regarded as Xi’s men. But, Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥) should have Xi’s full trust, otherwise it would be difficult to understand how he, as one of the youngest incumbent Politburo members born in the early 1960s, could be in charge of the CCP Central Office. In fact, with multi-faceted connections with different top leaders through both Jiang and Xi, and also due to their relatively better professional training and governance skills, cadres with Shanghai backgrounds have continued to rise in their careers during the Xi era, though not as widely or dramatically as they did during the Jiang era. Those who have attained significant career advances in recent years must also have the trust of Xi, even if they have connections with other leaders, as exemplified by people such as Xu Lin (徐麟), director of the State Council Information Office; Du Jiahao (杜家毫), party secretary of Hunan province; Chen Hao (陈豪), party secretary of Yunnan province; Wang Wentao (王文涛), governor of Heilongjiang province; Tang Dengjie (唐登杰), governor of Fujian province; and Shen Xiaoming (沈晓明), governor of Hainan province. With the exception of Du Jiahao and Chen Hao who are close to retirement age, the other still have the possibility of future career advancements.
The emergence of elites from these seven groups has shaped the mainstream trend of cadre upward mobility during the Xi era. Furthermore, this trend is characterized by a high-speed track, as their advances have been so rapid that in some cases one will receive more than one promotion within a very short period. Through frequent job transfers, they have quickly achieved high-ranking positions. Take Liaoning provincial governor Tang Yijun as an example: in May 2016, Tang was chairman of the local CPPCC in Ningbo, a marginal post in a sub-provincial city, but in October 2017 he was appointed as Liaoning provincial governor. Within one and a half years, he had received four promotions, which means that he received one significant promotion in roughly every four months. His early work experience as a secretary on the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee while Xi was provincial party chief helps explain his rapid rise. His case cannot be considered unusual among the figures cited above from the seven different groups.
The Cascade Impact and the Bandwagon Effect: Sub-Mainstream and Marginal Groups of Emerging Elites
As the number of political elites naturally increases with the lower levels in the power hierarchy, it becomes less feasible for a national dictator to directly have patron-client connections with cadres at lower levels. This is especially the case in a country as large as China. Accordingly, elite emergence on a wide scale must rely on methods other than direct favors coming from the king. From the perspective of the leader, one of his biggest dilemmas is his limited ability to control every subordinate, regardless of how much he would like to. He must rely on his lieutenants more than he would like to determine the fate of cadres at lower levels in the hierarchy. From the perspective of the cadres, they see more opportunities as Xi’s personal connections become weaker at the lower levels in the power hierarchy. They are able to rise via two fundamental tracks, which this article calls the “cascade impact” the “bandwagon effect.”
With the “cascade impact,” some elites advance in their careers through indirect connections with the dictator, or, more precisely, through connections with those major political figures who are under the dictator but are trusted by him. In the recent years of the Xi era, the most powerful political leader (next to Xi) who has been able to take advantage of the cascade impact to promote his people has been Wang Qishan. To a lesser extent, Li Zhanshu and Chen Xi, as well as Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛) who also has some influence, can also be considered to have partaken of the cascade impact.
The prominent position of Wang Qishan in the Xi leadership is unquestionable, which has enabled Wang to put his people in some important positions, though such positions may be limited to specific fields of governance, in particular, the financial sector and discipline inspection. Moreover, some cadres from those localities where Wang once worked, including Guangdong, Hainan, and Beijing, have attained unusual promotions, as exemplified by the case of Lin Duo (林铎), who, through frequent job transfers from 2010 to 2017 was able to jump from party secretary of Xicheng district of Beijing to party secretary of Gansu province. In the latest reshuffling of deputy provincial governors, a financial expert has been appointed to virtually each province, and many young technocrats have emerged with very promising future careers. For example, Yin Yong (殷勇), who became a deputy director of the Central Bank at 37 years of age (born in 1969), was appointed Beijing vice-mayor in 2018, and in the same year he also became a standing member of the party committee. The influence of those figures with connections to Wang Qishan is discernable in the tracks of their work experiences.
Li Zhanshu is another heavyweight who has thick ties with Xi. Under the leaderships of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he had long been an underdog, but after Xi assumed power he became a late bloomer. Those who still respected him well during his politically difficult years have been recently rewarded with promotions after Li became powerful. A prominent example of such a rise is Liu Guozhong (刘国中), who worked with Li Zhanshu in Heilongjiang in the 2000s and is now governor of Shaanxi province.
As the organizational tsar as well as the president of the Central Party School, Chen Xi has tremendous power to promote his own people, as indicated earlier in the discussion on the new Tsinghua gang. In contrast to Chen’s formal institutional prominence, Peng Liyuan’s influence in personnel appointments is highly informal. But there are some signs of her influence over the promotion of cadres from her home province of Shandong.
Needless to say, the influence of these leaders to shape trends in the emergence of new elites is limited in terms of both scope and level, where scope refers to the span of coverage of such positions, and the level is limited to the deputy-ministerial or provincial levels, although in a few cases to the level of provincial party secretary, governor, or minister. But in no case have they achieved any higher level. In other words, these top-ranking leaders are somewhat able to position their protégés in key posts, but Xi always holds the lion’s share.
Still, the huge body of existing party-state cadres is not able to join Xi’s protégés and major associates, despite the fact they may still desire further promotions in the party hierarchy. Within the party-state system, the cascade impact can be further extended beyond those leaders with immediate connections to Xi and other national leaders, reaching to much lower levels. It is vital that those cadres at levels lower than province/ministry find one or more political patrons at an appropriate level (who is sufficient powerful but also still accessible in practice) rather than seeking upward mobility through more high-ranking leaders.
Leaders at or above the provincial/ministerial levels without either having crossed paths in their experience or in their careers with Xi either during his early local years or through channels intimately connecting them to the cascade of Xi associates in patron-client networks but still dreaming to advance their careers often seek to attract Xi’s attention in various ways, especially by publicizing their unconditional praise of Xi, or, in political studies jargon through their unusual enthusiasm to promote Xi Jinping’s personality cult. Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) and Chen Quanguo (陈全国) are notorious in this regard, especially prior to the Nineteenth Party Congress. Despite their marginal or even factionally suspicious backgrounds, they were rewarded with seats on the Politburo at the Nineteenth Party Congress; Li has since also assumed the position of party secretary of Tianjin and Chen is party secretary of Xinjiang.
This “bandwagon effect” requires those high-level cadres without a background connecting them to any of the seven Xi groups to make a supreme effort to demonstrate their loyalty to Xi, often resulting in excessive praise of Xi to overshadow their peers in competition for career advances. After the Nineteenth Party Congress, especially after the March 2018 constitutional amendment eliminating a term limit for the PRC president, a position that Xi as CCP party chief concurrently holds, it seems that Xi’s promotion of his personality cult has declined somewhat. Due to his poor management of the Chinese economy and foreign relations, since the summer of 2018 Xi has been under pressure from within the party leadership, thus cautioning against excessively promote his personality cult. Under such circumstances, therefore, playing the game of “racing to display loyalty” by promoting Xi’s personality cult is no longer as effective to advance one’s career as it was in the past, and in some cases, especially after publication of a February 27, 2019 document on party building which criticizes the phenomena of so-called diji hong (低级红), which can be translated as “vulgar red,” with red meaning being politically correct in CCP politics and gaoji hei (高级黑) or “sophisticated blackening,” referring to those expressions and behaviors that seem to be praising a subject but in actuality are harmful, such praise may no longer be effective, or even dangerous, to advance one’s career. Overall, there is much less of a possibility for marginal groups of cadres to advance their careers through a bandwagon strategy.
Instead, other qualities have now become more important for elite emergence, especially for the younger generation of the political elite. These qualities, in addition to patron connections with Xi and his trusted lieutenants, may include being relatively young, being very capable to implement Xi’s policies and to troubleshoot potential problems, and having rich professional experience, especially in the finance, enterprise, and technology sectors.
This article has identified seven groups that have produced the political stars in Xi Jinping’s China. Members of all seven groups are closely connected to Xi during various stages of his life experiences prior to his rise to national power; this strongly suggests that elites emerge in CCP politics due to their patronage relationships with the supreme leaders. This is especially the case for those holding high-ranking positions at or above the level of deputy provincial leader (primarily members of the provincial party standing committees) and vice ministers. The long-established norms of elite promotion within the CCP based on the principle of factional sharing has now been replaced by domination by Xi Jinping’s people. Those emerging elites who have had various connections with Xi Jinping form the basis of the mainstream elite in China today.
The diversity in terms of backgrounds, factional connections, and paths of career advancement has become greater, however, for elites at lower levels of the Chinese party-state hierarchy. New people not from the above seven groups also hold some important positions. Other factors contributing to the appearance of new blood on the political stage include patronage from Xi’s trusted lieutenants, such as Wang Qishan. This article uses the cascade impact to describe the phenomenon whereby Xi’s major political clients become patrons to further the career advancements of their protégés. Such elite may be regarded as “semi-mainstream,” though such indirect connections with Xi may later become direct connections, and then they will become part of the mainstream emerging elites.
Those cadres who have not been lucky enough to have crossed paths with Xi and his chief lieutenants in their previous careers remain marginal, and they have only a slim chance of advancing their careers, even if they successfully mobilize what this article calls the bandwagon effect. The trend for the near future seems to be a narrowing of their channels for upward mobility, whereas the sub-mainstream elite will probably still have ways to move up the political hierarchy.
About the Contributor
Guoguang Wu, a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University, is Professor of Political Science, Professor of History, and Chair in China and Asia-Pacific Relations at the University of Victoria, Canada. His research interests include Chinese political institutions and their transformation in comparative perspectives, and the political economy of capitalism and globalization. He is the author of four books, including China’s Party Congress: Power, Legitimacy, and Institutional Manipulation (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Globalization against Democracy: A Political Economy of Capitalism after its Global Triumph (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and editor or coeditor of six English-language volumes, and author and editor of more than a dozen of Chinese-language books. During the late 1980s, he worked in Beijing as a policy adviser and speechwriter for China’s national leadership.