Eye on 2022 (Part 1): Rising Stars in the Provinces

Xi Jinping may rule supreme in Chinese politics, but he does not rule alone. The huge attention devoted to Xi is understandable but it can obscure important personnel shifts that will shape the next cohort of national leaders, set to be unveiled at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Those promoted in the lead-up to the Party Congress are strong contenders for further elevation—including to the elite 25-member Politburo—and the new year presents an occasion to analyze the key personnel movements that occurred in 2020.

Using career trajectory and demographic data from MacroPolo’s “The Committee,” this is the first of two commentaries that analyze recent promotions. We begin with provincial leaders and will follow up with the central Party-State bureaucracy.

Provincial-Level Party Secretaries

One-third of provincial-level governments in mainland China received a new Party Secretary in 2020 (see Table 1). These officials are important figures in Chinese politics, with primary responsibility for local economies that can dwarf those of countries. The GDP of Zhejiang province, for example, exceeds that of The Netherlands.

Table 1. Provincial-Level Party Secretary Promotions in 2020Note: All officials were promoted within the full provincial-ministerial administrative level. The only non-voting alternate Committee member on this list, Jing Junhai, is basically guaranteed to become a full member in 2022.

Source: The Committee by MacroPolo.

Of these rising stars, Ying Yong and Shen Yiqin appear to flicker especially bright for now. That’s because they both have ties to Xi and will be younger than 68 in 2022, the customary age cut-off for new Politburo members.

Ying, who is on the older side, nevertheless has the strongest chance of a Politburo promotion in 2022, having served as provincial chief justice and deputy discipline chief when Xi was Zhejiang Party Secretary from 2003-2007. That past connection is probably why Xi tapped Ying to replace Jiang Chaoliang as Hubei Party Secretary after the latter was dismissed for the province’s poor response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Shen’s promotion made her the only female and the only ethnic minority (Bai) Party Secretary. This move makes her a good bet to replace Sun Chunlan, the only current female Politburo member, who is expected to retire in 2022. Shen’s career in Guizhou also means she has worked closely with Xi allies like Li Zhanshu and Chen Min’er.

Notable on the list above is the number of technocrats. Xu Dazhe, Zhang Guoqing, and Yuan Jiajun all rose through the aerospace industry. Yin Li and Shen Xiaoming are both highly experienced health professionals. Their promotions reflect the rising priority of industrial innovation and social welfare in Xi’s administration.

Of these five technocrats, Zhang and Shen Xiaoming are the two youngest provincial Party Secretaries, and both may have ties to Xi. Zhang’s doctoral studies at Tsinghua University overlapped with those of Xi (1998-2002), and Shen was education boss in Shanghai when Xi served as the city’s Party Secretary (2007). Both seem well-positioned to ascend to the Politburo in 2022 or 2027.

More generally, 7 of the 10 new provincial Party Secretaries were promoted from Governor of the same locality, with the other three promoted from Governor-level positions in different localities, showing the continued importance of local experience for provincial promotions.

Provincial-Level Governors

Fully 18 of 31 provincial-level governments changed Governors in 2020—a turnover rate of nearly 60% (see Table 2). Governors are seconds-in-command but many of them become Party Secretaries and then rise through the ranks in Beijing. Their younger ages mean that most on this list will only become serious Politburo contenders at the 21st Party Congress in 2027. Those Governors not currently on the Central Committee are virtually guaranteed a spot in 2022. 

Table 2. Provincial-Level Governor Promotions in 2020Notes: Asterisk indicates that the appointment is all but assured though yet to be fully confirmed. Blue shading indicates a promotion from deputy provincial-ministerial level to full provincial-ministerial level, with the non-shaded officials having already reached that administrative level.
Source: The Committee by MacroPolo.

Gong Zheng is the Governor above with the best chance of a Politburo seat in 2022. He is already a full Committee member, and the mayoralty of Shanghai has preceded national-level careers for Party heavyweights like Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Han Zheng. Also, when Gong served as a Vice Governor of Zhejiang from 2008-2013, he worked closely with four key Xi allies who now sit on the Politburo: Cai Qi, Chen Min’er, Huang Kunming, and Li Qiang.

Xi likes to work with people who he knows. New Governors who could benefit from having worked under Xi include: Yin Hong, who ran a municipal district when Xi was Party Secretary of Shanghai (2007); Zhao Yide, who headed the provincial Communist Youth League during Xi’s tenure as Zhejiang Party Secretary (2003-2007); and Zheng Shanjie, who worked in the Xiamen city government when Xi was Deputy Party Secretary and Governor of Fujian (1995-2002).

Other new Governors to watch are the three technocrats “parachuted” into provincial leadership from central agencies. Such rotations are less common, but give promising technocrats an opportunity to prove themselves as managers and politicians.

Foremost among these technocrats is Li Ganjie, a nuclear scientist who made an unusual move into provincial leadership after serving as a (very young) State Council minister, suggesting a bright political future. The other two are Mao Weiming, a chemical engineer who headed State Grid, and Han Jun, a senior rural development adviser.

Stay tuned for Part II on promotions in the central Party-State bureaucracy.

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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