China’s technocrats blast off: two more space engineers in new Central Committee

Zhejiang governor Yuan Jiajun and former Comac chairman Jin Zhuanglong join seven existing members with similar background

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 10:43am

The technocratic credentials of the Communist Party’s Central Committee were boosted at the recently concluded party congress in Beijing, with two former engineers with a background in the defence industries, including the aerospace sector, joining the 204-member body.

Zhejiang governor Yuan Jiajun and Jin Zhuanglong, the former chairman of Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) who is now first deputy to President Xi Jinping on an important military-civilian integration committee, join at least seven existing members with a similar background.

Six of the former engineers, including Yuan and Jin, used to work for China Aerospace Space Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) and the others worked for Chinese defence conglomerates.

Due to its reliance on advanced technology, the aerospace sector was an indicator of a country’s comprehensive national power and symbol of “modernisation” – a goal set by party chief Xi at the congress – Xu Shijie, a missile scientist at Beihang University, said.

Out with the technocrats, in with China’s new breed of politicians

China has invested heavily in the sector this century because of its importance in international strategic competition and the development of military technology.

CASTC management has delivered on the top leadership’s expectations, having been rated in the top rank of central-government-owned enterprises for 13 years in a row. Last year it was ranked No 1.

Xu said the elevation of Yuan, Jin and the other former CASTC engineers was understandable because they had performed well and had shown they had the ability to manage difficult, large and complicated projects.

“With years of being grass-roots scientific researchers, they think differently from those who always work in administrative jobs,” said Xu, who briefly worked with some of them before they left the industry.

Yuan joins four other provincial leaders who used to be CASTC engineers in the Central Committee: Heilongjiang party secretary Zhang Qingwei, Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui, Liaoning governor Chen Qiufa and Hunan governor Xu Dazhe. Zhang, Ma and Yuan are still in their 50s, as in Jin.

Two other Central Committee members with a similar background are Wang Yong, who became a state councillor four years ago, and Hao Peng, who has been director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission since last year.

The emergence of such technocrats in politics comes in the wake of some landmark aerospace achievements under their leadership.

Zhang was the deputy director in charge of China’s first two manned space missions – Shenzhou V and VI – as well as its lunar orbit survey. Ma used to be the chief expert for China’s military satellite system and director of the new generation carrier rocket programme. Yuan was chief commander of the Shenzhou programme. Chen and Xu started their careers as junior engineers before going on to lead the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

Another former defence industry technocrat in the Central Committee is Chongqing mayor Zhang Guoqing. The 53-year-old previously worked as general manager of North Industry Corporation, China’s biggest weapons manufacturer, supplier and exporter.

Why China’s aerospace experts have become Xi Jinping’s new political elite

Xi has shown a personal interest in military modernisation and has boosted its budget.

“A leader’s favourite is whom he promotes,” said Ni Lexiong, Shanghai-based commentator. “The importance attached to the defence industries is a message to all people.”

Political observer Zhang Lifan said the former engineers had little connection with previous party factions and their technological bent might make them less interested in political power struggles, making them ideal choices for Xi when filling vacancies created by his anti-graft campaign.

While there are plenty of technocrats in leading provincial roles, there are now fewer at the very top of the party.

Their clout reached a pinnacle in 1997, when all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee formed that year had degrees in the sciences or engineering.

There were eight people with degrees in engineering or the sciences in the first nine-member Politburo Standing Committee under former party chief Hu Jintao and seven in his second, but only one – Xi, who studied chemical engineering – in the current seven-member body and the one it just replaced.

Premier Li Keqiang studied law and economics, Wang Huning used to be a professor of international politics and dean of the law school at Fudan University and Zhao Leji read philosophy at Peking University. Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang and Han Zheng acquired masters degrees in management or economics.