How China’s Top Leaders Came Into Power

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China’s process for choosing top leaders is opaque, but not unpredictable. There are patterns to who rises and falls at the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade reshuffles, like the one completed Wednesday in Beijing.

Personnel moves at the 19th Party Congress confirmed trends identified in a Bloomberg News analysis of Chinese political promotions over the past quarter century. The careers of seven dozen top officials show that people who run big cities such as Beijing or Shanghai are practically guaranteed spots in the upper echelons, while some rich industrial provinces like Guangdong have had less political clout relative to their economic strength.

The congress selected 204 people to run China for the next five years, from army generals to executives of the nation’s biggest state-run conglomerates. The week of pageantry culminated Wednesday when President Xi Jinping and the handful of other new leaders on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee walked onto a red-carpeted stage to present themselves to the world:

Xi Jinping, 64

General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Li Keqiang, 62

Premier

Li Zhanshu, 67

Chief of Staff

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research

Chief

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party

Chief

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Xi Jinping, 64

General Secretary of the

Communist Party of China

Li Keqiang, 62

Premier

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Li Zhanshu, 67

Chief of Staff

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party Chief

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Li Keqiang, 62

Premier

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party

Chief

Xi Jinping, 64

General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Li Zhanshu, 67

Chief of Staff

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

Li Keqiang, 62

Premier

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party Chief

Xi Jinping, 64

General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Li Zhanshu, 67

Chief of Staff

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

The Standing Committee meets weekly to approve all major decisions. The larger Politburo gathers every month. Bigger still is the Central Committee, which assembles at least once a year to ratify broad policy shifts.

200+

Central Committee

20+

Politburo

7-9

Standing

Committee

200+

Central Committee

20+

Politburo

7-9

Standing

Committee

200+

Central Committee

20+

Politburo

7-9

Standing Committee

Here’s a look at how the committees are assembled:

Running a Big Region Is Important

To make it onto one of those powerful bodies, the Communist Party’s 89 million members must check certain boxes. Often that includes holding positions at government ministries, military units and local government. But regional leadership posts have proven the best springboard for higher office.

The chart below shows the career paths of all 31 people who have made it onto the elite Standing Committee since 1992, when reformist leader Deng Xiaoping established the current succession system. Xi, for instance, advanced from party chief of a large city, through a pair of lesser provinces, before finally moving to Shanghai, China’s financial center.

From there, Xi jumped straight to the Standing Committee. Similarly, Shanghai’s current party chief, Han Zheng, also secured a spot on the panel Wednesday.

Some Regions Hold More Sway

A review of the broader group of 70 Politburo members since 1992 shows that some of mainland China’s 31 regions provide better hope for advancement than others. The governors, mayors and party chiefs of politically sensitive areas have received promotions more often than their peers in wealthier, more economically important provinces.

The charts below compare the relative political influence of a region—the number of Politburo members it has produced—with its economic influence, its share of the nation’s gross domestic product. Regions get credit for every top job held there by future Politburo member. So Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, which were all led by Xi at some point, all get credit for producing a future Politburo member.

Major Cities

Politburo members

10

OVER-REPRESENTED

UNDER-REPRESENTED

Beijing

Shanghai

8

Tianjin

6

Chongqing

4

2

10%

0

2

4

6

8

Share of Economy

All four centrally administered municipalities punch above their weight in the political hierarchy.

Wealthy Coastal Provinces

10

8

Guangdong

6

Fujian

Shandong

4

Jiangsu

Zhejiang

2

0

10%

China’s industrial powerhouses, such as Guangdong and Shandong, produce

fewer top leaders than their economic influence might suggest.

Ethnic Minority Regions

10

8

6

Xinjiang

4

Tibet

Inner Mongolia

2

Qinghai

Guangxi

Gansu

10%

0

Ningxia

Yunnan

While China’s mostly

poor minority areas lag their peers, regions with a history of separatism such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai stand out.

No Politburo members

Politburo members

Major Cities

10

OVER-REPRESENTED

UNDER-REPRESENTED

Beijing

Shanghai

8

Tianjin

6

Chongqing

All four centrally administered municipalities punch above their weight

in the political

hierarchy.

4

2

0

2

4

6

8

10%

Share of Economy

Wealthy Coastal Provinces

Guangdong

Fujian

Shandong

China’s industrial powerhouses, such as Guangdong and Shandong, produce fewer top leaders than economic influence might suggest.

Jiangsu

Zhejiang

Ethnic Minority Regions

Xinjiang

No Politburo members

Tibet

While China’s mostly poor minority areas lag their peers, regions with a history of separatism such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai stand out.

Inner Mongolia

Qinghai

Guangxi

Gansu

Yunnan

Ningxia

Major Cities

Politburo members

10

OVER-REPRESENTED

Beijing

UNDER-REPRESENTED

Beijing

Shanghai

8

Tianjin

Tianjin

6

Chongqing

Shanghai

4

All four centrally administered municipalities punch above

their weight in the political hierarchy.

2

0

2

4

6

8

10%

Share of Economy

Wealthy Coastal Provinces

Guangdong

Fujian

Shandong

Jiangsu

China’s industrial powerhouses, such as Guangdong

and Shandong, produce fewer top leaders than economic

influence might suggest.

Zhejiang

Ethnic Minority Regions

No Politburo members

Xinjiang

Tibet

While China’s mostly poor minority areas lag their peers,

regions with a history of separatism such as Xinjiang,

Tibet and Qinghai stand out.

Inner Mongolia

Qinghai

Guangxi

Gansu

Yunnan

Ningxia

Shanghai, which was also once run by former President Jiang Zemin, has been the most consistent producer of future state leaders. Fujian—home to military installations targeting Taiwan—has also outperformed its coastal peers. Meanwhile, the remote western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang have emerged as proving grounds for dealing with the challenges of separatism and religious extremism.

The trends held this year, too. Officials with leadership experience in Beijing, Chongqing, Tianjin, Tibet and Xinjiang all joined the Politburo.

Age Drives the Promotion Process

Retirement conventions in place since 2002 compel Standing Committee members age 68 or older to step down after the party congress. That means aspiring state leaders must climb through the system at a young enough age to ensure a long tenure at the highest levels of power.

The graphic below shows that the past two presidents and premiers were among the youngest members when they joined Politburo, allowing them to serve more terms at the highest ranks. The gray circles show the ages of the 70 Politburo members appointed at each congress since 1992.

Politburo member

Retirement age of 68 set in 2002

Politburo’s older line-up limits

successor candidates

2017

19th

Congress

2012

18th

2007

17th

Zhu Rongji

Jiang

and

Li

Keqiang

Xi

Jinping

Zemin

handed

2002

16th

power to

the next

generation

1997

15th

1992

14th

Hu Jintao’s

Wen Jiabao’s

and

age ensured longevity

Age

50

55

60

65

70

75

Note: Data includes Politburo

alternate members

Politburo member

Retirement age of 68 set in 2002

Politburo’s older line-up limits t

successor candidates

2017

19th

Congress

2012

18th

2007

17th

Li Keqiang

Xi Jinping

2002

16th

Zhu Rongji

Jiang Zemin

and

handed power to the next generation

1997

15th

1992

14th

Hu Jintao’s

Wen Jiabao’s

and

age ensured longevity

Age

50

55

60

65

70

75

80

Note: Data includes Politburo alternate members

Politburo member

Politburo’s older line-up limits

successor candidates

Retirement age of 68 set in 2002

2017

19th Congress

2012

18th

2007

17th

Li Keqiang

Xi Jinping

2002

16th

Zhu Rongji

Jiang Zemin

and

handed power

to the next generation

1997

15th

1992

14th

Hu Jintao’s

Wen Jiabao’s

and

age ensured longevity

Age

50

55

60

65

70

75

80

Note: Data includes Politburo alternate members

The elevation of Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua to the Politburo at relatively young ages five years ago fueled speculation they were headed for high office. However, Sun’s career was unexpectedly cut short when he was removed in July over unspecified corruption allegations.

With the older Politburo announced Wednesday, Xi has identified no clear successor.

The Politburo Must Include Key Constituencies

Many Politburo seats are allocated to powerful groups within the Communist Party, creating an equilibrium that has changed little in recent years.

The Standing Committee always contains the president, premier and the heads of top legislative bodies. Politburo seats are reserved for the heads of the most important regions—such as Beijing and Chongqing—and the most powerful uniformed officers on the Central Military Commission.

Government

Legislature

Military

Party

Standing

Committee

Politburo

Party

Personnel

Chiefs

Party Building,

Ideology Chiefs

2017

2012

2007

2002

1997

1992

Party

Security

Chiefs

Regional

Chiefs

President,

Premier,

First Vice

Premiers

Party

Discipline

Chiefs

Official roles to be confirmed in the

coming months

Government

Legislature

Party

Military

Standing

Committee

Politburo

Party Building,

Ideology Chiefs

Party Personnel

Chiefs

2017

2012

2007

2002

1997

1992

President, Premier,

First Vice Premiers

Party

Discipline Chiefs

Regional

Chiefs

Party

Security Chiefs

Official roles to be confirmed in the coming months

Government

Legislature

Party

Military

Standing

Committee

Politburo

Party Building,

Ideology Chiefs

Party

Personnel Chiefs

2017

2012

2007

2002

1997

1992

President, Premier,

First Vice Premiers

Party

Discipline Chiefs

Regional

Chiefs

Party

Security Chiefs

Official roles to be confirmed in the coming months

There Are Few Women and Minorities at the Top

China’s leadership is more homogeneous than either the party or the nation as a whole. No woman or member of the country’s recognized 55 minority groups has ever been promoted to the Standing Committee. The latest line-up reduced the number of women on the Politburo to one from two.

Women

1992

49% of

population

Standing Committee

Politburo

Central Committee

6.4%

of members

1997

2002

4.2

4.2

2.5

2007

2012

4

8

6.4

4.9

2017

4

4.9

Minorities

1992

8% of population

Standing Committee

Politburo

Central Committee

7.4

1997

2002

4.2

7.3

7.6

2007

2012

4

7.8

4.9

2017

7.8

Women

1992

1997

2002

49% of population

Standing Committee

Politburo

4.2

Central Committee

6.4%

of members

4.2

2.5

2007

2012

2017

4

8

4

6.4

4.9

4.9

Minorities

1992

1997

2002

8% of population

Standing Committee

Politburo

4.2

Central Committee

7.4

7.3

7.6

2007

2012

2017

4

7.8

4.9

7.8

Women

1992

1997

2002

2007

2012

49% of population

Standing Committee

Politburo

4.2

4.0

8.0

Central Committee

6.4%

of members

4.2

2.5

6.4

4.9

2017

4.0

4.9

Minorities

1992

1997

2002

2007

2012

8% of population

Standing Committee

Politburo

4.2

4.0

Central Committee

7.4

7.3

7.6

7.8

4.9

2017

7.8

Only 5 percent of the Central Committee’s members are women, compared with 20 percent of the party or 49 percent of the country’s population. A similar share hail from ethnic minorities, who make up about 8 percent of the citizenry.

Here Are Some Officials to Watch

Even under Xi, who has amassed enough power to challenge conventions, the Politburo’s structure makes it possible to predict who will rise. Before the congress, we highlighted eight Standing Committee contenders to watch for promotion. Here’s how they fared:

Li Zhanshu, 67 

Chief of Staff

Li toiled for decades in poorer regions but did run a county adjacent to another being run by Xi in Hebei province. Then when Xi rose to power, he was promoted to the

office that manages the itineraries of top leaders.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party Chief

While Han has overseen Shanghai’s transformation into one of Asia’s most modern cities, including a $44 billion infrastructure makeover, the Politburo member has also struggled to control property prices and establish a new free-trade zone.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Wang gained notoriety promoting a relatively liberal economic program known as the “Guangdong model” and has since become a top liaison to the U.S., where he has pushed back against protectionist trade policies.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

Politburo member is Xi’s top political theorist and foreign-policy guru, having advised his two immediate predecessors. As an academic, he advocated the strengths of strong central leadership over fractious democratic systems.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Before overseeing appointments for every top-level job in the country, Zhao cut his teeth as the country’s youngest regional leader in the western province of Qinghai. The local economy doubled during his seven years in charge.

Until five years ago, every personnel chief held a Standing Committee seat.

Li Qiang, 58

Jiangsu Party Chief

The former Xi aide developed his concept

of “small-town economies”–or clusters of hi-tech and innovation-focused businesses–while governor of Zhejiang province. He now oversees Jiangsu, with an economy larger than Indonesia’s.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Chen Miner, 57

Chongqing Party Chief

The former Xi associate attracted investments from the likes of Apple Inc.

as part of an initiative to redevelop impoverished Guizhou province by focusing on “big data” industries.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Hu Chunhua, 54

Guangdong Party Chief

The Politburo’s youngest member has embraced services and high-end manufacturing in Guangdong as he tries

to manage slowing growth and rising labor

costs in the southern manufacturing hub.

Stayed on the Politburo.

Li Zhanshu, 67 

Chief of Staff

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party Chief

Li toiled for decades in poorer

regions but did run a county adjacent to another being run by Xi in Hebei

province. Then when Xi rose to power, he was promoted to the office

that manages the itineraries

of top leaders.

While Han has overseen Shanghai’s transformation into one of Asia’s most modern cities, including a $44 billion infrastructure makeover, the Politburo member has also struggled to control property prices and establish a new free-trade zone.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

Wang gained notoriety promoting a relatively liberal economic program known as the “Guangdong model”

and has since become a top liaison

to the U.S., where he has pushed back against protectionist trade policies.

Politburo member is Xi’s top political

theorist and foreign-policy guru, having

advised his two immediate predecessors.

As an academic, he advocated the

strengths of strong central leadership

over fractious democratic systems.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Li Qiang, 58

Jiangsu Party Chief

Before overseeing appointments for every top-level job in the country, Zhao cut his teeth as the country’s youngest regional leader in the western province of Qinghai. The local economy doubled during his seven years in charge.

The former Xi aide developed his

concept of “small-town economies”–

or clusters of hi-tech and innovation-

focused businesses–while governor

of Zhejiang province. He now oversees

Jiangsu, with an economy larger than

Indonesia’s.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Chen Miner, 57

Chongqing Party Chief

Hu Chunhua, 54

Guangdong Party Chief

The former Xi associate attracted investments from the likes of Apple Inc. as part of an initiative to redevelop impoverished Guizhou province by focusing on “big data” industries.

The Politburo’s youngest member has embraced services and high-end manufacturing in Guangdong as he tries to manage slowing growth and rising labor costs in the southern manufacturing hub.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Stayed on the Politburo.

Li Zhanshu, 67 

Chief of Staff

Han Zheng, 63

Shanghai Party Chief

Li toiled for decades in poorer regions but did run

a county adjacent to another being run by Xi in Hebei

province. Then when Xi rose to power, he was

promoted to the office that manages the itineraries

of top leaders.

While Han has overseen Shanghai’s transformation into

one of Asia’s most modern cities, including a $44 billion infrastructure makeover, the Politburo member has also struggled to control property prices and establish a new free-trade zone.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Wang Yang, 62

Vice Premier

Wang Huning, 62

Policy Research Chief

Wang gained notoriety promoting a relatively liberal economic program known as the “Guangdong model”

and has since become a top liaison to the U.S.,

where he has pushed back against protectionist trade policies.

Politburo member is Xi’s top political theorist and

foreign-policy guru, having advised his two immediate

predecessors. As an academic, he advocated the

strengths of strong central leadership over fractious

democratic systems.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Zhao Leji, 60

Personnel Chief

Li Qiang, 58

Jiangsu Party Chief

Before overseeing appointments for every top-level job

in the country, Zhao cut his teeth as the country’s youngest regional leader in the western province of Qinghai. The local economy doubled during his seven years in charge.

The former Xi aide developed his concept of “small-town economies”–or clusters of hi-tech and innovation-focused businesses–while governor of Zhejiang province. He now oversees Jiangsu, with an economy larger than Indonesia’s.

Promoted to the Standing Committee.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Chen Miner, 57

Chongqing Party Chief

Hu Chunhua, 54

Guangdong Party Chief

The former Xi associate attracted investments from

the likes of Apple Inc. as part of an initiative to redevelop impoverished Guizhou province by focusing on “big data” industries.

The Politburo’s youngest member has embraced

services and high-end manufacturing in Guangdong

as he tries to manage slowing growth and rising labor

costs in the southern manufacturing hub.

Promoted to the Politburo.

Stayed on the Politburo.

The climb to the top of China’s ruling party is long and fraught with peril. Even the most meticulous of officials can see their careers suddenly cut short by investigation or the rules of succession. The few who make it will play a central role in running the world’s largest country into the next decade.