Provincialism: Before Ruling China, You Have To Rule 2.4 Provinces

What it takes to make it to the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is no trivial matter. In a political party that’s more than 90-million strong, the odds are stacked against anyone making it into the 25-member Politburo, the CCP’s highest decision-making body.

Since CCP politicians are not answerable to an electorate, the grooming process puts more emphasis on career experience. While too much experience can be considered a liability and “outsider” status an asset for American politicians, accumulating significant and diverse experiences is a must for CCP politicians who enter the top ranks.

Because it is impossible to run for political office at 25 or 35 years of age, CCP political careers tend to peak after 55, which means politicians spend nearly 30 years in various roles before getting the big jobs in Party central.  

While the path to the US presidency in recent decades winds through the senate or governorships, the path to the Politburo typically meanders through provincial leadership and central Party positions (see Figure 1). In other words, being an “outsider” does very little for a candidate’s prospects of entering the Politburo.

Figure 1. Both US Presidents and Politburo Members Have Executive ExperienceNote: 14 US presidents and 58 Chinese Politburo members are included in the respective samples.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

This analysis relies on a 30-year dataset to discern the experiences that matter for entering the Politburo. Our three main findings are: 1) executive experience at the provincial level matters the most; 2) the duration and diversity of provincial experiences have increased, setting the bar even higher; 3) ticking the central Party organ box appears to be a necessary feather in the cap to get into the Politburo under Xi Jinping.

More provinces, diverse experiences

An analogue to the Chinese system, albeit imperfect, may be the political appointee system in the US government. In fact, there is no other option but political appointees in the CCP. Therefore, political leaders in the provinces are typically helicoptered in from elsewhere rather than “homegrown” locals.

That provincial executive experience is key to any aspiring Politburo member. More than 80% of Politburo members in each central committee since Jiang Zemin have served in at least one province. Without provincial experience on their resume, it is basically impossible for CCP politicians to rise into the Politburo.

But simply having served in one province is no longer enough. It is increasingly the case that politicians need spend more time serving in more than a couple provinces.

The time that Politburo members have spent running provinces has risen from 45% of their entire political career under Hu Jintao to 66% in Xi’s second term (see Figure 2). More than duration, it is becoming the norm for politicians to spend more time serving in different provinces, with the average number of provinces served rising from 1.8 to above 2.4 between Hu’s first term and Xi’s second term (see Figure 3).

Figure 2. Politburo Members Are Spending More Time Running ProvincesNote: Politburo members include those who died, were purged, or were added in the mid-term, but do not include military leaders.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

Figure 3. Politburo Members under Xi Have More Local ExperiencesNote: This figure includes only those who have local experiences and excludes military leaders.
Source: Author; MacroPolo.

While Chinese leaders have long believed that acquiring these executive skills are necessary to manage a complex country like China, Xi seems to believe that even more fervently. This is perhaps derived from how he benefitted politically from a 25-year career serving in four provinces.

Xi has not only urged young cadres to work in rural areas but has also promoted officials with longer and broader local experiences to top positions. Under Xi’s leadership, serving in a wider array of provinces matters even more as a metric for promotions. For instance, 60% of Politburo members with local experience in the 19th Central Committee had served in poorer provinces like Guizhou.  

Local experience necessary but insufficient

Provincial experience may be necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient either. To improve one’s chance of entering the Politburo, acquiring central government experience is also important. While only half of the Politburo members under Jiang had both provincial and central experience, that proportion had risen to 70% under Hu and Xi.

The CCP even began a deliberate effort in 2010 to ensure that officials had both central and local experiences. Still going to this day, it was essentially a rotation program run by the Organization Department, the CCP’s human resources department, that had 120 central and local officials exchange roles with each other.

Surprisingly, central Party organ experience is not as determinative of political prospects as imagined. Members of the 19th Politburo spent only 11% of their careers in central Party organizations, lower than the 19% and 14% in the 17th and 18th Politburos, respectively.

Although Party experience matters less for entering the Politburo, it increasingly appears to be the final slam dunk needed under Xi. For instance, under the Jiang and Hu administrations, only around 20% of candidates spent their last stop at Party central before reaching the Politburo. But that figure has doubled to nearly 40% of the candidates in Xi’s second term.

This is not a coincidence. Since 2016, Xi has been empowering Party organizations to play bigger roles. Not only does serving in Party central test a candidate’s political loyalty, it can also showcase the candidate’s ability to maneuver within the Party bureaucracy and deal effectively with central-level constituencies, such as state firm bosses.

Nevertheless, the CCP’s increasing emphasis on local experience and technocrat leaders is not surprising, as China is in dire need of experienced provincial leaders to address major problems such as an aging population, social inequality, and technology supply chains. As such, local experience, as well as local performance, will continue to play a decisive role in Chinese elite politics in coming years. At a minimum, local experience can help inform the chances a cadre has at entering the upcoming 20th Politburo.

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

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

Get Our Stuff