Who Rules China? Comparing Representation on the NPC and Central Committee

March Madness for China-watchers is the “Two Sessions,” the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Yet, from scripted press conferences to rubber stamp approvals, these two institutions are often dismissed as political pageantry of little significance.

Recent scholarship suggests otherwise. Rory Truex, a Princeton political scientist, argues persuasively that the rote proceedings and staged appearance of the Two Sessions belie the real political significance of the NPC. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rewards NPC delegates who, throughout the year, make suggestions that transmit citizen preferences on non-sensitive political issues, such as environmental protection, to central policymakers.

In short, the NPC serves as an information feedback mechanism that allows the CCP to better “serve the people,” placate anti-government sentiment at the grassroots, and address grievances from various constituencies. For instance, the Xi Jinping administration this year was focused on mollifying two interests: the domestic business community (cutting their entitlement contributions) and the foreign business community (passing the new Foreign Investment Law). Thus, the NPC achieves what Truex calls “representation within bounds.”

But who does the NPC actually represent? Who are the 2,975 NPC delegates who descended on Beijing this March? The conclusion of this year’s Two Sessions is an opportune moment to compare several demographic characteristics of NPC “representatives,” as compiled by NPC Observer, with the 375 “policymakers” with full or alternate membership of the CCP Central Committee (CC).[1]

The Committee, MacroPolo’s relaunched digital interactive on Chinese elite politics, can now capture interesting but overlooked patterns and trends with the latest biographical data and enhanced search functions. Here, we look at several different types of representation: geographic, ethnic, gender, and generational.

Geographic Representation[2]

How much does where you’re from affect how far you go in Chinese politics? The CC, formally the highest body in Chinese politics, and the NPC, formally the highest organ of state authority, have quotas that ensure some degree of equality in the representation of officials who serve in each province. But many senior officials are not from the provinces in which they work, so the geographic backgrounds of officials are not necessarily equally represented.

For every CC and NPC member, the government publicizes their “place of ancestry” (jiguan), which official regulations define as being “the long-term residence of one’s paternal grandfather.”[3] It turns out that some jiguan are significantly over-represented or under-represented in the NPC and the CC. This finding suggests that people whose families are from certain provinces are more likely to reach the highest echelons of political power in China.[4]

Figure 1. Politicians from Wealthy Coastal Provinces are Over-Represented while Poorer Southwest Provinces are Under-Represented

Note: The representation index compares the proportion of CC or NPC representatives claiming a jiguan in that province with the proportion of the national population residing in that province. E.g. A score of 1 connotes perfect representation, a score of 2 connotes double representation, and a score of 0.5 connotes half representation.
Source: MacroPolo, National Bureau of Statistics, NPC Observer.

CC members whose paternal ancestors hail from the wealthy coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Beijing are over-represented by at least 50% relative to their provincial populations.[5] For instance, Shandong, China’s second-most populous province, enjoys jiguan representation almost double that relative to its population size. Other provinces that are generously over-represented include Tibet, Liaoning, Shanghai, and Hebei. Shaanxi, the provincial jiguan of President Xi, is over-represented by 25%.

The most under-represented jiguans on the CC are provinces in the south and southwest—Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Sichuan have 50% fewer members with a local jiguan than should be expected based on their population size. Guangdong, however, is an outlier. It is a relatively wealthy coastal province that is under-represented by over 80%. Despite being China’s most populous province, only five CC members trace their origins to Guangdong. No CC member has a jiguan in Hainan, the island province known as China’s “Hawaii.”

The pattern of jiguan representation on the NPC is broadly similar to that in the CC, although representation in the NPC is on average somewhat more equal than in the CC. For instance, there are 10 NPC delegates whose jiguan is in Hainan. However, some patterns are reversed in the NPC: politicians with ancestry in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin are significantly under-represented as compared to the CC, whereas there is much better representation of those from Anhui, Shanxi, and Sichuan.

Ethnic Representation [6]

When it comes to minority representation, each of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities, which together constitute 8.5% of the national population, has at least one representative in the NPC. Even the three ethnicities with fewer than 5,000 people—the Tatars, Lhoba, and Gaoshan—have an NPC delegate. When it comes to the CC, however, a full 38 of the 55 ethnic minorities are not represented at all. This number includes the Tujia people, who with 8.35 million members are the largest ethnic group excluded from the CC.

Figure 2. Only 1/3 of China’s Minorities Are Represented on the Central Committee
Note: The graph shows a representation index that compares the proportion of CC members of a particular ethnicity with the proportion of the national population of that ethnicity. E.g. A score of 1 connotes perfect representation.
Source: MacroPolo, National Bureau of Statistics.

If one considers the representation of ethnic groups on the CC compared to their proportion of China’s population, the picture is mixed for different minorities. Of those 18 ethnicities with CC members, some are still under-represented relative to their size, such as the Miao, Manchu, Yi, and Zhuang peoples—whose numbers range from 8.71 million to 16.9 million.

Minorities in western China, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, and Hui, are actually over-represented on the CC. Such appointments, however, are probably intended to co-opt local elites as those regions’ allegiance to Beijing is a perennial preoccupation of the CCP. As Han Chinese make up only 85.3% of NPC delegates, relative to 91.5% of the national population, their under-representation means that almost every minority is over-represented on the NPC.

Gender Representation

Gender representation of course cuts across ethnicities. It is well known that Chinese female politicians tend to hit a “glass ceiling” and are significantly under-represented in the CC. As MacroPolo has noted previously, the CC is only 8% female, with women comprising less than 5% of full members. But the NPC helps to correct some of this imbalance—female membership is almost 25%, still well short of equality but three times better than on the CC. Female representation on the NPC actually narrowly beats the global average for women in parliament and does just better than the US Congress.

Figure 3. Female Representation in Chinese Legislature Aligns with World Average
Source: NPC Observer, Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Generational Representation [7]

Chinese politics is also ageist, in the sense that experience and seniority are often prerequisites for advancement up the political hierarchy. The average age of CC members is 58.8—it’s 59 for US congressional representatives—while for full members it is slightly higher at 61.2. NPC delegates have an average age of 53.8, a full five years younger than CC members, and in line with the global average age for parliamentarians of 53. Still, the median age in China is 37, so young Chinese are significantly underrepresented, a fact common around the world.

Figure 4. Average Age of Chinese Politicians Similar to Elsewhere
Source: MacroPolo, NPC Observer, Quorum, UNDP.

Conclusion

What do these data tell us? The NPC is younger, more female, and far more ethnically diverse than the CC—although both bodies fall short of achieving equal representation for women and young people. It seems nearly impossible for ethnic minorities and women to reach the uppermost rung of Chinese politics. In addition, the greater demographic diversity found in the NPC seems to support Truex’s theory that the NPC is an institution that the CCP uses, in the absence of free elections and widespread polling, to collect valuable information about its performance from a much wider cross-section of society.

Perhaps a more fundamental finding is that there may be significant inequality of political opportunity for Chinese whose ancestors come from different parts of China. In both the NPC and the CC, there are proportionately far more members who trace their lineage to the wealthy coast than from the poorer southern provinces.

So, the person that you’re most likely to see in the halls of Chinese political power is a fifty-something Han Chinese man who considers himself an east coaster.

 

Endnotes

[1]  The NPC Observer database collected and analyzed the demographic characteristics of the 2,980 delegates who attended the annual NPC meeting in 2018. In the year since, nine delegates were removed, and four new delegates were added, so this database is slightly out-of-date. Nevertheless, the difference between the 2018 and 2019 delegates is not significant enough to affect our analytical conclusions. We also use 2019 statistics for the ethnicity and gender of NPC delegates.

[2]  We could not find this data for four alternate members of the CC. We do not include these members in the analysis but we do calculate the representation index for each province of ancestry as a proportion of the 375 total members of the Central Committee. Additionally, one alternate member of the CC claims Taiwan as their place of ancestry, and we have not represented this situation.

[3]  There are many Chinese terms that describe different places of personal belonging, such as laojia, zuji, yuanji, etc. We use jiguan because this is the data that is the most reliable and accessible for government officials, while many other similar terms are often not provided by official sources and are thus not as reliable.

[4]  The term “province” is used to refer to all provincial-level administrations in mainland China. Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Tianjin are actually provincial-level municipalities. Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Tibet are provincial-level autonomous regions.

[5]  The resident populations of provinces have of course changed over the years, as a result of continued population flows from rural to urban China. But issues of data reliability, changing administrative boundaries, and the impossibility of selecting a perfect historical year for comparison mean that we relied on the latest available population data in 2017.

[6]  We could not find this data for five alternate members of the CC. For the purpose of this analysis, we assume that they are members of the Han majority. Population data are from the 2010 national census.

[7]  We could not find this data for five alternate members of the CC. Our figures represent average ages in March 2019 for the 203 full members and 167 alternate members for which we have data. Please note that official sources tend to provide only the month and year of birth, so we count all those born in March as having passed their birthday this year.