Ties That Bind: Xi’s People on the Politburo

Leaders prefer to work with people they trust. When American presidents, corporate executives, and major-league coaches begin their tenures, they often bring a whole new leadership team with them to help run the show. But this dynamic rises to another level behind the closed doors of Chinese politics.

That’s because in an authoritarian system, a top leader like Xi Jinping faces higher political costs than his democratic counterparts if subordinates were to successfully challenge his rule. Recent scholarship on career advancement in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shows that factional ties to the top leader, as measured by overlapping study and work experiences, strongly bolster chances of promotion to the Central Committee. Competence, if judged on economic growth and fiscal revenue, appears to matter more for the promotion of lower-level cadres.

Such findings suggest that studies of Chinese elite politics must consider personal networks. A simple way to do so is to use The Committee, a product by MacroPolo that has recently been upgraded with a network feature that shows career and education overlaps for all 204 full members of the 19th CCP Central Committee, which holds office from 2017 to 2022. (Full members can vote on decisions, while the group’s 169 alternate members cannot.)

This analysis uses The Committee to examine the composition of the Central Committee’s 25-person Politburo, with a focus on the origin and evolution of their shared experiences with Xi. The Politburo is the second-most important decision-making body in China, as power is further centralized in the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

The foremost finding is that, since becoming CCP General Secretary in November 2012, Xi has been remarkably successful in elevating politicians with whom he has professional, educational, or personal ties. Formally, the Central Committee elects the Politburo, but in reality it is selected by backroom negotiations. So, while the composition of the 18th Politburo (2012-2017) reflected the clout of his predecessors, Xi capitalized on the outsized power he acquired during his first five-year term to install close comrades in the 19th Politburo.

Approximately 60% (15 members) of the 19th Politburo have direct ties to Xi, up from around 20% (five members) of the 18th Politburo (see Tables 1 and 2). Four members of the 19th Politburo were elevated from being alternate members of the 18th Central Committee. In addition, two members were brought in from outside the Central Committee entirely, which had not happened since Tan Shaowen entered the Politburo in 1992. Full membership of the previous Central Committee is usually a prerequisite for promotion to the Politburo.

In comparison, only one member of the 18th Politburo (Li Zhanshu) and two members of the 17th Politburo (Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang) were appointed directly from the pool of alternate members. All six members who enjoyed accelerated promotions to the 19th Politburo had close ties with Xi. 

Table 1. The 18th CCP Politburo (2012-2017)
Note: Brackets indicate likely factional alignment. The first seven names are listed in the rank order of the seven members of the 18th PBSC. Other names are listed according to the stroke order of their Chinese characters.
Source: The Committee; additional information from media reports and Cheng Li, “A Biographical and Factional Analysis of the Post-2012 Politburo,” China Leadership Monitor, 2013.

Table 2. The 19th CCP Politburo (2017-2022)
Note: Brackets indicate likely factional alignment. The first seven names are listed in the rank order of the seven members of the 19th PBSC. Other names are listed according to the stroke order of their Chinese characters.
Source: The Committee; additional information from media reports and Cheng Li, “Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle (Parts 1-5),” China Leadership Monitor, 2014-2015.

So how and when exactly did Xi forge these ties in the Politburo? One of the first political connections that he made was as an undergraduate at Tsinghua University from 1975-1979. That was his friend Chen Xi, a classmate in the chemical engineering department, who pursued a career in Tsinghua’s academic bureaucracy, and was Deputy Party Secretary of the university when Xi returned part-time to study for a doctorate from 1998-2002. Chen ascended to the Politburo in 2017, when he was appointed Director of the powerful CCP Organization Department, the human resources department that appoints key Party-state personnel.

Many Chinese leaders build their political networks during the formative years of their careers in local governments. So too did most of Xi’s connections span the two decades he rose through the ranks in the coastal provinces of Fujian (1985-2002) and Zhejiang (2002-2007).

In Fujian, Xi made three important connections with officials whose fortunes rose as he ascended the political hierarchy. When Xi was on the Fujian CCP Standing Committee (1993-2002), Cai Qi worked under him as Deputy Director of its General Office (1993-1996). Huang Kunming, known as a close associate of Xi, served as a local official in Fujian for most of Xi’s time there (1982-1999). Finally, while Party Secretary of Fuzhou (1990-1993), the provincial capital, Xi got on well with a local air force commander named Xu Qiliang.

Two decades later, both Cai and Huang rocketed into the 19th Politburo, Cai from outside the Central Committee and Huang from alternate membership. Cai is now Party Secretary of Beijing and Huang is Director of the CCP Propaganda Department. And that air force commander in Fuzhou? Xu is the first-ranked Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission, second only to Xi.

In Zhejiang, Xi struck up relationships with other rising stars. As Party Secretary there, Xi worked closely with Chen Min’er, who served as Director of the provincial Propaganda Department for the duration of Xi’s tenure, and is now Party Secretary of Chongqing and considered a potential successor to Xi.

In Xi’s last three years in charge of Zhejiang, the Secretary-General of the provincial CCP Committee was Li Qiang, who became Party Secretary of Shanghai in 2017 and won a Politburo seat straight from the alternates bench. (Both Cai and Huang also served as leaders of prefecture-level cities in Zhejiang during Xi’s time there.)

Before moving to Beijing as leader-in-waiting after the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Xi served for eight months as Party Secretary of Shanghai. Despite the short stay, he still formed close relationships with two junior colleagues: Ding Xuexiang and Yang Xiaodu.

Ding served as Director of the General Office of the Shanghai Municipal CCP Committee at the time and was brought to Beijing in 2012 to become Xi’s chief-of-staff. He was concurrently made the deputy director (now director) of the Central Committee’s administrative office and secured Politburo promotion from an alternate position in 2017.

Yang, who headed Shanghai’s United Front Work Department in 2007, became a key figure in Xi’s anticorruption campaign after 2012 and was helicoptered from outside the Central Committee into the 19th Politburo. Yang was then appointed the first Director of the National Supervisory Commission, a graft-busting super agency created in 2018.

Future versions of The Committee will attempt to look beyond professional and educational ties to capture more personal and less direct associations, such as those Xi shares with his two closest allies on the PBSC, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. Li and Xi served as Party Secretaries of neighboring counties in Hebei from 1983-1985, while Zhao hails from the same province (Shaanxi) as Xi’s ancestors and is thought to have known the Xi family for many years.

Network analysis will come into sharper focus over the next two years in the lead-up to the selection of the next Politburo and PBSC at the 20th Party Congress in the fall of 2022. The CCP’s preference for promoting younger leaders suggests that three current Politburo members born in the 1960s—Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang, and Hu Chunhua—are front-runners for the next PBSC. It is too early for any predictions, but so long as networks remain important in Chinese elite politics, we can surmise that Chen and Ding hold an advantage over Hu.

Neil Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at MacroPolo. You can follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work on politics, political economy, and US-China relations here.

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