Where do the Chinese political elites originate from?

29.10.2018 | By Adrian Brona

The critical Chinese politicians often emphasise their ample body of political experience. Their path to the top is an exceptionally arduous and lengthy one, as the process of promotion in Chinese politics is – at least in theory – clear and fair. The multi-stage process of selection of Communist Party of China delegates begins at the township level, where each comrade can enter into the contest. If one looks closely at this process, however, confusing web of connections can be recognised, which makes it instead a process of selection than election.

To be sure, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not a democratic state nor is it a law-abiding one. It is indisputably ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is the core of the entire Chinese political system and is comprised of over 89 million Chinese. 30% of them are farmers, but there are also physical workers, administrative workers and white collars employed in the private sector. In fact, members of the CPC represent the whole spectrum of Chinese society. Currently, and this may sound odd to external observers, even the wealthiest businessmen can become members of the Party.

Membership in the highest-elevated bodies of the CPC is essential for the politician who wants to remain close to the decision-making centre, as jobs in the government do not weigh as much. It is the membership in the Central Committee (CC), its Political Bureau (Politburo) and Standing Committee that defines the rank of a particular entity in the system.

This latter body is considered to be the highest-elevated one in China. Currently, it is comprised of seven individuals who occupy the top spots in the Party and in the government. The most important of them is Xi Jinping, secretary general of the CPC and simultaneously chairman (president) of PRC and chairman of the Central Military Commission (nominally, there exist two such bodies, but in practice, the same people are members of both of them). These three top jobs allow Xi to be the leader of the Party and give him a strong mandate to the external representation of PRC and to control the army. The second spot is occupied by Li Keqiang, prime minister of the State Council who controls all government agencies. The third one belongs to Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), that is the unicameral parliament. In the fourth place, there is Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which is an advisory body not mentioned in the Constitution and comprised of entities who are not members of the CPC. The CPPCC is often mistakenly thought of as the second chamber of Chinese parliament due to the similarities in the mode of proceedings and because it debates at the same time as the NPC does. The fifth sport belongs to Wang Huning who is in charge of the CPC’s Secretariat and the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization, which is the CPC’s organ responsible for supervision of propaganda effectiveness. In the sixth place, there is Zhao Leji, chairman of the powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The last spot is occupied by Han Zheng, the first vice prime minister.

The mechanisms of selection of political elites used by the CPC are significantly different from those practised in democratic states. They were established after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Familiarising ourselves with them will allow us to gain a better understanding of the processes in Chinese politics.

Procedures  – theory and practice

The most important authorities of the CPC are elected indirectly every five years. The whole process lasts a few months and – in theory – retains a grassroots character which is supposed to reflect the four-level administrative division of China. First, there are township-level party elections, and this is the only level in which candidates are named from the bank of all those who are party members. Next, the township committee selects from themselves delegates to the county-level congress, where county-level party committee is selected in turn. The situation is repeated at the level of prefecture and province. Province-level party committees (autonomous regions and cities included) form 32 districts, where delegates to the National Congress of the CPC are selected. Moreover, there exist “sectoral” districts, designating representatives of committees, e.g. military, state companies or people employed in central party apparatus. In this way, approximately 2280 delegates from 40 districts were chosen for the 19th National Congress in 2017.

The National Congress meets in the Great Hall of the People at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. During nearly three weeks of deliberations, the previous five years are assessed, and the Central Committee of the CPC is selected. It consists of 380 members, 200 of which have voting rights during subsequent meetings. The CC gathers at the first plenary session on the day after the closing of the National Congress. From among its members, it then selects the Political Bureau (currently 25 individuals), the Standing Committee of the Politburo (7 individuals), the Central Military Commission (7 members) and chairmen of central party departments. The most important of those is the Standing Committee, then the Political Bureau.

In practice, the grassroots process of selection of the crucial individuals from among 90 million members of the CPC is carefully managed from the top. On the one hand, individual leaders pressure the collective organs to select their preferred candidates. It is particularly visible on the level of the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee, but this mechanism is also prevalent on the lower levels. It is worth emphasising that the selection process is influenced not only by the most important individuals in the CPC but also by retired leaders of the country, most notably Jiang Zemin, the CPC secretary general until 2002. The individuals that maintained close ties with him were selected to both the Standing Committee and the Political Bureau during the secretaryship of Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and during the first stint of Xi Jinping.

Many experts argue that personal relationships are the deciding factor in the process of promotion to the higher post. They may include the shared origin, educational background (especially at the leading universities) and working in the same party committee. Among the most notable groups that capitalised on these networks are Princelings (the descendants of high-profile party members, e.g. Xi Jinping) and former members of the Communist Youth League of China – the party’s youth movement (e.g. Li Keqiang).

On the other hand, there exists a formal process of assessment of delegates at each stage of selection, which is directed by the Organization Department of the CPC. For example, after the designation of delegates for the National Congress, the Organization Department of the incumbent CC makes an assessment of each and every one of them. It takes into account previous achievements of the candidate, compliance with party rules and congruence of candidate’s views with the party line. These criteria, however, are so vague that it is possible to cross out any candidate at will unless it does not undermine vested interests of party leaders who try to promote their protégés.

Since the elections are centrally-steered, the whole process is often considered to be a “selection” rather than “election”. In this way, the CPC leaders can ensure that they can designate their successor themselves. The master of this art was Deng Xiaoping who gave his blessing to the four secretary generals who ruled from 1981 until 2012.

Hu Jintao, the last of them, took up this position five years after the death of his patron. Patronage, however, is limited by the specific traits of Chinese political culture, which promotes hierarchy and decades of hard work on the lower levels of party apparatus. The average age of the member of 19th CPC Political Bureau with voting rights (chosen in 2017) was 62. The youngest one, in turn, was at that moment 50. This means that before joining the highest executive bodies, the majority of them has worked for 30 years on the lower levels. Even for political leaders, it is hard to promote candidates without such an experience.

The pathway to the top

In China, there are a few pathways to the top of the political system. They lead through administrative posts in provinces, the party apparatus, state administration and through the military. Usually, entities at the top have experience in at least two of them.

Executive posts in provinces are the most highly-regarded jobs. In this case, there occur promotions to the position of the CPC chairman or vice chairman of the higher level of local administration. Usually, it is connected with the post of the chairman of the local government or local legislative. Xi Jinping is one of the model examples of such a pathway. He was a deputy secretary (1981-1982) and secretary (1982-1985) of the CPC in Zhengding, vice mayor (1985-1988) of Xiamen, secretary in the prefecture Ningde (1988-1990) and the city of Fuzhou (1990-1996), deputy secretary of the province of Fujian (1995-2002) and secretary in province of Zhejiang (2002-2007) and in Shanghai (2007), an autonomous city with the status of a province. In 2007, he was relocated to Beijing, where he assumed the post of the vice president of China. Among the seven current members of the Standing Committee, six occupied the position of secretary or deputy secretary of a province, and five of them did that in at least two provinces.

Somewhat less prestigious, but influential nonetheless, is the pathway of a career in the party apparatus and government agencies or ministries. It covers a similar path from the level of a town to the central level in Beijing but is focused primarily on only one aspect of governance. Wang Huning is a model example here. He attained a position in the Standing Committee, earlier working – since 1995 – in the Central Policy Research Office, which is subordinate to the Central Committee. Other notable examples include Wang Chen (long-time party journalist and employee of propaganda department), Ding Xuexiang (for the most part, worked in the Organization Department and Executive Office of Shanghai) and Yang Jichei (a  diplomat).

A career in the military is, in turn, a quite specific pathway. The military has played a significant role in Chinese politics, and its support was essential for the rule of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The strong position of Xi Jinping is partly a result of his close connections to the military, cultivated since the late 70s. For many years now, 20% of the Central Committee members are military men. However, it is challenging for them to obtain a higher post. Since 1997, Political Bureau has not had more than 2 representatives of the military (less than 10% of the whole body), while the last military representative till now in the most prestigious Standing Committee left the office in1997.

No place for outsiders

Hierarchy and centrally-planned selection of political leaders make it impossible for the careers in the mould of Donald Trump, Mateusz Morawiecki or Andrzej Duda to occur in China.

The first two of them could not be even taken into consideration for any high post due to their lack of earlier involvement in the CPC. Barack Obama, who at 47 became president of the United States, could be a promising politician, one of the youngest governors, second-important position in a province behind only a local CPC chairman. President Andrzej Duda, elected at 43, would be – at best – the CPC’s secretary in one of the provinces.

Due to the well-established hierarchy in Chinese politics, the most important politicians in PRC are simultaneously the most experienced ones, which, undoubtedly, positively affects the quality of their governance. On the other hand, this situation results in slim chances for outsiders to enter the system. Also, young people, regardless of their abilities and resourcefulness, must come into line with the CPC. Their promotion opportunities can be blocked due to personal animosities or other fundamental differences. In this system, a person that stands higher in the party hierarchy is always right. In this context, the political system in China can be described as a limited meritocracy, where even the most gifted politicians have to work many years at lower levels, and their promotion is not always based on merit.

Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.