The Return of The Technocrats in Chinese Politics

The “red vs. expert” debate has long preoccupied observers of Chinese elite politics. Ever since Deng Xiaoping, the presence of so-called “technocrats” in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has leavened Party politics with considerable pragmatism. That’s because Deng, like the leaders who succeeded him, believed that nation-building required domain expertise and technical chops, not just pure-bred CCP politicians.

Technocrats, defined as those having trained and worked in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, tend to be more apolitical and focused on problem-solving. It goes without saying that they believe in scientific and technological progress to move society forward.

For instance, former Minister of Science and Technology (MOST) Wan Gang, a non-CCP member, was the quintessential technocrat leader. Having had a career in the auto industry, Wan was credited with pushing China’s electric vehicles (EV) program forward while he was head of MOST in the 2000s, the result of which is China’s burgeoning EV industry today.

Since Wan served in the Hu Jintao administration, and Hu and Wen Jiabao themselves were trained in STEM, the Hu/Wen decade was widely viewed as the technocratic administration. Yet technocrats at the Politburo Standing Committee level obscured a more complicated reality. In fact, technocrats in the Central Committee (CC) peaked under Jiang Zemin and bottomed out in Hu’s second term, only to return in a more meaningful way in Xi Jinping’s second term.

Marshalling a 30-year dataset of provincial party secretaries and governors (as of April 30, 2022), in this analysis we show that 1) technocrats have started to recover in provincial leadership after bottoming out under Hu; 2) technocrats under Xi by and large have domain expertise that align with China’s technological priorities in the coming decade; and 3) Xi’s technocrats have gained more political clout in practice by using the case of Hunan.

Technocrats Are Back

Contrary to the technocratic label slapped on the Hu/Wen administration, that decade actually saw a hollowing out of technocrats at the provincial leadership level (see Figure 1). The number of technocrats in the provinces under Hu essentially halved from the golden age under Jiang.

Figure 1. Technocrats Bottomed Out Under Hu, Recovering under Xi
Note: Total number of technocrats who served or are serving as provincial leaders in each CC were counted only once, irrespective of how many different provincial posts they held.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

Several reasons explain this gutting of technocrats in the 2000s. One factor was simply the change in the political structure in the provinces. While it was common for both the party secretary and governor—the top two provincial posts—to be held by technocrats under Jiang, that “dual technocrat” model became exceedingly rare under Hu and continued into Xi’s tenure. Instead, the vast majority of provinces had just one technocrat in the top two posts.

Another factor was supply of talent. Many provincial leaders in Hu’s administration came of age during the Cultural Revolution and had skipped out on college, let alone proper STEM training. This post-50s generation of officials had lower levels of educational attainment than their predecessors and therefore offered a smaller pool of talent. In other words, Hu’s tenure coincided with a supply crunch of qualified technocrats to ascend to leadership positions.

That talent drought appears to be alleviating as the post-60s generation of officials are entering the center of politics. This cohort came of age during reform and opening and has absorbed much from Western science and technology. Therefore, the recovery of technocrats that began in Xi’s second term is expected to continue into the 20th CC as the arrival of the post-60s generation will account for at least 80% of the CC membership.

Demand was likely also a factor. That is, since Hu/Wen presided over a period of global integration and rapid growth, there was more of a need for development and investment-focused officials to run provinces, not necessarily technocrats.

This seems to comport with the fact that the pendulum is swinging back in technocrats’ favor under Xi as he has prioritized technological advancement over growth. With ambitious strategies under the banner of “top-level design,” technocrats are needed to implement them in the provinces.

Reversing the trend of decline can be seen not only in the aggregate figures but also in the promotions in Xi’s second term (see Figure 2). More than half of the provincial promotions (17 out of 30) from governors to party secretaries (the top honcho) in the 19th CC went to technocrats, up from just 14% in Hu’s final term. Although this doesn’t quite reach the level of Jiang’s first term, when nearly 88% of provincial promotions went to technocrats, it is nonetheless a dramatic reversal from Hu’s tenure.

Figure 2. Xi Administration Has Ramped Up Promotion of Technocrats
Note: Promotions during a political transition were counted toward the new incoming CC.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

The Xi administration appears to favor both “red” and “expert” (又红又专) in its personnel choices, recognizing the need for technocrats to execute on its technology agenda. Making Xi’s job easier on this front is that the current CC is the most educated in Party history, with 28% of full members holding doctorates and 12% having overseas education experience.

Emerging Tech(nocrats) Emerge

Not only is Xi bringing more technocrats back into the fold, they are of a different vintage than the hydroelectric engineers or geologists that dotted the Jiang and Hu/Wen eras. The new cohort of technocrats are plucked from the aerospace, semiconductors, and advanced manufacturing industries, aligning well with priorities in the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP).

That alignment should come as no surprise given the priority placed on those technology sectors. What is somewhat surprising is the concentration of technocrats from these emerging industries (see Figure 3). Since Xi came into office, the portion of emerging industry technocrats in provincial positions shot up from less than 20% to nearly 45% in the 18th CC and 62% in the 19th CC.

Figure 3. Emerging Tech Technocrats Have Ballooned under Xi
Note: Figures represent the percentage of emerging industry technocrats to all technocrats who served or are serving as provincial leaders in each CC.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

Promotions further reinforce this trend, as 33% and 65% of the promotions given to technocrats in Xi’s first and second terms, respectively, were concentrated in emerging industries (see Figure 4). What remains of traditional industry technocrats tend to be scattered in less developed provinces like Qinghai and Yunnan.

Figure 4. Emerging Industry Technocrats Much More Likely to Get Promotions
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

The Case of Hunan and Aerospace Technocrats

Personnel choices in Hunan province can illustrate how this new cohort of technocrats has been empowered. Hunan is both a prominent R&D center for aircraft engines and landing systems and the base for the Beidou Satellite Navigation System (BDS) program, which began development in 1995 at Hunan’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT). It’s no secret that the Beidou program was aimed at competing with the US GPS and the EU Galileo systems.

Just three years after Hunan was selected as the demonstration area for the third-generation BDS (BDS-3), a 32-year veteran of the aerospace industry Xu Dazhe was assigned as governor in 2016 and promoted to party secretary in 2020. It’s as if a former NASA engineer became the governor of a state.

Indeed, Xu comes with impeccable credentials, not least of which as a participant in the Shenzhou Manned Spacecraft Project. He placed emphasis on the BDS-3 project, urging more investment in research and pushing BDS-3 applications for everything from transportation and agriculture to postal delivery and natural disaster modeling.

While in office, Xu made full use of resources at his disposal to develop Hunan’s aerospace industry supply chain. Not only did he elevate aerospace supply chains as a core agenda in Hunan’s 13th FYP, he also required all provincial standing committee members to oversee at least one local supply chain from emerging industries.

Perhaps it comes as little surprise that Xu viewed his job as essentially the “chief salesman” for the aerospace industry to strengthen Hunan’s industrial base and technological prowess. He wooed major aerospace companies such as CASC, CASIC, and AVIC to visit and signed a flurry of long-term partnership contracts with industrial parks, local suppliers, and universities. He also restructured the Hunan Aerospace Industry General Corp., which became the first provincial state aerospace company to adopt mixed ownership and attract venture capital.

In 2021, Xu retired from his position after hitting the age ceiling of 65, but was replaced with another aerospace industry veteran Zhang Qingwei. As Heilongjiang Party Secretary from 2017 to 2021, Zhang was credited with turning the northeast rust belt province into a manufacturing hub for China’s COMAC commercial aircraft.

That two consecutive party secretaries of Hunan are aerospace technocrats is hardly a coincidence—they account for more than one-quarter of emerging industry technocrats in Xi’s second term (see Table 1). Although previous administrations have also tapped aerospace experts for leadership positions, the proliferation of these technocrats under Xi constitutes a mini bloc, having all worked in provinces with notable aerospace and aviation supply chains.

Table 1. Aerospace Technocrats Running Provinces

Source: MacroPolo’s The Committee.

Nerds Rule?

After a decade of reviving the talent pool of technocrats at the local level, emerging industry technocrats will very likely populate the upcoming 20th CC. Some of them have also been placed in key ministerial positions, such as Minister of Education Huai Jinpeng. A computer scientist by training, Huai was appointed last August to further enhance STEM training from primary schools to universities.

As the technological competition with the United States intensifies, Beijing has given more political power to technocrats to execute ambitious industrial policies and build out local tech supply chains. Whether that will actually lead to Beijing’s desired outcomes remains to be seen. At a minimum, STEM training will likely have greater political payoffs in coming years.

Ruihan Huang is a research associate at MacroPolo. You can find his work on elite politics, regulatory risk, policymaking, and other topics here.

Joshua Henderson was a student fellow at MacroPolo, who contributed significantly to this analysis before the completion of his fellowship.

The authors would like to thank Zhanyuan (Jerry) Yin for excellent research assistance.

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