What If Chinese Leaders Were on LinkedIn? Part 2

Our first foray in applying network analysis to Chinese politics visualized the evolution of Xi Jinping’s political network from 2007 up until the present. But what about other members of today’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC)?

In this sequel dubbed the “LinkedIn Triptych,” we visualized the first and second connections of Li Keqiang, Wang Huning, and Li Zhanshu—respectively the second, third, and fifth positions on the PBSC.

By leveraging The Committee database, which is updated weekly, these data visualizations show the constellation of connections within each leader’s political orbit. Akin to paintings, each panel of this triptych is accompanied by a few insights yielded from the network analysis.

“Melding Galaxies” is fitting for Li Keqiang’s network because it is clear that he and Xi entered the PBSC in 2007 with distinct network universes that had relatively little overlap (represented by “shared 1st connections”).

Before they both ascended to the top of the political ladder, Li and Xi’s respective networks were about the same size. That is, each had roughly the same number of first connections who would eventually become full Central Committee (CC) members in the 19th Party Congress.

Although both were in the PBSC by 2007, it is unclear how much they interacted or worked with each other since they had different portfolios (Li was Vice Premier and Xi was Vice President at the time).

By 2014, the Li and Xi galaxies began to merge shortly after the anti-corruption campaign felled powerful players like Zhou Yongkang, Su Rong, Ling Jihua, and Xu Caihou. It was clear by then that purging different cliques was a priority, and by 2016, the two galaxies melded into one, as Xi became the center of both his and Li’s networks.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the phlegmatic Wang Huning would be the peripheral “Lone Star” with no apparent direct connection to the General Secretary he would eventually serve.

In fact, Wang had no first connections with any of the 19th CC members back in 2007. His lack of a political coalition is also his biggest asset, and likely explains why top leaders since Jiang Zemin have placed trust in him. That is, he appears to be a loyal Party man with no discernable political ambitions of his own.

Wang appears to have only gained connections with Xi’s core allies when in 2014 he joined the Central Leading Small Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. But Wang’s reputation for being the Svengali on articulating the Party’s raison d’etre and ideological legitimacy has pulled the Lone Star into the center.

On the face of it, Li Zhanshu barely had any first connections to Xi or 19th CC members back in 2007. But Li was never orbiting far from Xi and had built up his own satellite network that Xi eventually inherited as well.

That’s because Li and Xi’s relationship extend back to the early 1980s when they worked in neighboring counties in Hebei province. As young ambitious officials who have political lineage and experienced the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, they likely grew close to each other through that formative experience.

Although both men went their separate ways after their stint in Hebei—Xi ran the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang and Li went out west to poorer Shaanxi and Guizhou—they likely stayed in touch and would meet again in Beijing. Xi appointed Li as the head of the CCP General Office in 2012, after which their overlapping connections grew significantly.

Xi seems to value Li as a confidante and trusts his judgment in people. That is illustrated by the promotion of Zhao Kezhi to Minister of Public Security in 2017, who had no obvious experience in that realm, and the promotion of current Guizhou Party Secretary Shen Yiqin—one of the highest ranked female politicians. Neither had worked directly with Xi but both had worked directly with Li. This suggests that Li is capable of bringing his satellite network into Xi’s direct orbit.

One thing remains clear: Xi’s centripetal force intensified significantly after the 19th Party Congress, as the political networks of other PBSC members integrated with Xi’s. It may be worthwhile to compare whether previous leaders exerted similarly strong centripetal force in future examinations of elite political networks.

Full visualizations from 2007 to 2021 are available upon request.

Damien Ma is the Managing Director of MacroPolo. You can find his work on energy, politics, and other topics here.

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