What If Chinese Leaders Were on LinkedIn?

From business to politics, much have been written on network effects. As is well known, networks matter to a considerable degree in Chinese elite politics. In fact, the underpinnings of provincial coalitions—the focus of our previous analysis—are various networks that accrue to top politicians as they continue to rise in their influence and power.

So in addition to provincial coalitions, we leveraged The Committee database to experiment with network analysis and visualize the evolution of top leaders’ networks. This exercise was centered around a simple premise: IF someone like President Xi Jinping had a LinkedIn profile, what would his first and second connections look like. And what, if anything, does the change in Xi’s networks say about his political power?

Visualizing Xi’s First and Second Connections in the Central Committee

linked comm 1 - What If Chinese Leaders Were on LinkedIn?

Notes: The sample is composed of only full members of the 19th Central Committee. For instance, this graph shows how many of today’s 19th Central Committee full members were in Xi’s network starting in 2007 and how that network grew over 15 years. The distance between the two dots is inversely correlated with the total duration of their shared experiences. For optimal viewing, only select years are displayed. We have available the entire 15 years of visualizations.
Source: Author; MacroPolo’s The Committee.

The most obvious trend above is the shift from a dispersed and sparse network before Xi became Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Party Secretary to a concentrated and dense network by 2021. But it is also evident that when Xi became a Politburo Standing Committee member in the 17th Central Committee (CC), he was already expanding his network. In fact, his first connections in the 19th CC rose from 30 in 2012 to 47 in 2018, up nearly 57%.

Another notable trend is how quickly Xi’s first connections in the CC moved closer to him within a couple years of his securing the top post in the CCP. This may be in large part a result of the anticorruption campaign from 2013-2017. Whatever the specific reason, it seems clear that Xi was seeking to consolidate his political network in a hurry during his first term. One clear indication of his success was the first official recognition of Xi as the core leader at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th CC in October 2016.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is Xi’s efforts to assert control over the military. As is evident in the visualization above, the purple cluster representing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) connections moved dramatically closer to Xi starting in the first plenum of the 19th CC in 2017. This implies that Xi shifted from strengthening his network with CC politicians in his first term to consolidating his PLA network in his second term.

But Xi’s efforts to establish his own network in the PLA began much earlier than 2017. When he became Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2010, Xi seemed to have already identified the person who would eventually become the key bridge between the CC and the PLA: Xu Qiliang (represented by the red dot in the center of the PLA network).

Back in 2010, as Xu Qiliang was on his way to becoming Vice Chair of the CMC two years later, Xi was already working with him, as well as CMC members Wei Fenghe (currently Minister of Defense) and Zhang Youxia, who eventually ascended to CMC Vice Chair in 2017. It appeared that they collectively weakened the influences of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou—both CMC Vice Chairs at the time—in the PLA.

A key player in this effort was Zhang Shengmin (one of the yellow dots), who, in addition to having a strong PLA network, has also been the head of the CMC disciplinary commission since January 2017. Zhang has been instrumental in disciplining corrupt officers and strengthening the PLA’s loyalty to Xi.

By the time Xu Qiliang became CMC Vice Chair in 2012, he had one of the strongest networks in the PLA and has been central to Xi’s military connections. Put another way, Xi’s consolidation of his control over the PLA can be interpreted as dependent on having long cultivated a relationship with Xu.

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

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