China: The Struggle at the Top

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in a painting that has been circulating on the Internet
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in a painting that has been circulating on the Internet

The Chinese were gloating over the flaws of the American political system long before the election of Donald J. Trump. Coming from an obsessively orderly system, they were again and again baffled by an institutional setup that flips control from party to party every four or eight years, bestows supreme power on novices like a former one-term governor who owned a baseball team and a one-term senator with prior experience in a state legislature, and allows each new ruling group to undo the policies of its predecessor.

In a 2013 cartoon, Chinese propagandists contrasted Barack Obama’s rise with Xi Jinping’s thirty-year progression up the bureaucratic ladder.1 The Chinese system passes its leaders through “decades of selections and tests,” the video says, with just a one in 140,000 chance of promotion even to the minister level, much less to the top grade of “state leader.” “This is one of the secrets of the ‘China Miracle.’”2

In Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, our leading expert on the Chinese political elite, describes the career paths followed by Chinese officials with great sophistication. He has been studying this group for decades, tracing the backgrounds of successive Central Committees, whose four hundred or so members and alternates meet once (occasionally twice) a year to approve major policy documents, and are newly elected every five years to approve automatically elections to the two most powerful organs of government: the Political Bureau, usually twenty-plus members, and its Standing Committee, usually five to nine members.

Li shows that there are now several versions of the Chinese path to the top. The most common channels involve advancement through the Party, government, or military bureaucracies. Others include service in the country’s court and procuratorial hierarchies or success in business management either in China’s giant state-owned enterprises or in private firms.

Comparing the 12th Central Committee (1982) and the 18th Central Committee (2012), Li shows that the political elite is more educated than before (99.2 percent have college degrees compared to 55.4 percent in 1982), more technocratic (21.5 percent have technical backgrounds versus 1.9 percent, although this is down from 51.8 percent in 1997), and includes more legal professionals and businessmen. As he did in a previous book, China’s Leaders: The New Generation (2001), Li argues that such shifts in the makeup of the elite will drive changes in policy. But in view of the ways that elites are formed by choices at the top, the Party is more likely to shape the elite than the elite to shape the Party. For those who make it this close to the top,…

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