Why Chinese Communist Party’s largest elite body now has a lot of new members but not many young ones

Party chief Xi Jinping has stacked Central Committee with loyalists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 2:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 11:19pm

Promoting young cadres was not a priority for Communist Party members in Beijing last month when they voted on the membership of its new Central Committee, the largest of the party’s elite ruling bodies.

Only two of the 376 members of the new body were born in the 1970s, making it the oldest Central Committee in three decades. That’s a stark contrast to the Central Committee formed a decade earlier, which was the youngest in half a century and included 25 people born in the 1960s.

The two youngest members of the new body are also non-voting alternate members, whereas the 17th Central Committee formed in 2007 included four full members born in the 1960s.

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The 19th Central Committee, whose membership was decided at the party’s five-yearly national congress last month, has 204 full members with voting rights and 172 alternate members who attend meetings and fill vacancies that occur.

A seat on the Central Committee – known as the first rung of China’s leadership ladder – is fiercely contested among officials as it opens the road to key positions in the party, government, military and state-owned enterprises. It is also a prerequisite for further advancement into the party’s decision-making Politburo and its innermost Politburo Standing Committee.

The previous Central Committee, which accompanied Xi Jinping through his first term as party general secretary, was largely picked by his predecessors. But at last month’s congress, which heralded the start of Xi’s “new era” and saw him emerge as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, it was Xi’s term to dominate personnel decisions.

The reshuffle of the central leadership was the most dramatic in decades, with 67.3 per cent of the new Central Committee’s members being newcomers. That compares with 50.6 per cent of the 16th Central Committee formed in 2002 and 48.7 per cent of the 18th Central Committee formed in 2012, according to data compiled by Cheng Li, a veteran China watcher at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.

The result, however, is the oldest Central Committee seen in decades. It now has an average age of 57, up by 0.9 years from five years ago. The 17th Central Committee, formed in the middle of former party chief Hu Jintao’s 10-year reign, was the youngest in half a century, with an average age of 53.5 according to Li’s data.

Just 28 of the current Central Committee’s full and alternate members are younger than 53, compared with 71 when the 18th Central Committee was formed and 96 for the 17th Central Committee.

“This term, the Central Committee is older overall,” said Beijing-based analyst Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University political scientist. “There is no sign of designating successors, and it has also broken the bureaucratic promotion system established in the past two decades, with Xi stacking the body with his own loyalists.”

Xi bucked recent convention after last month’s congress when he failed to signal a likely successor by elevating one or two younger faces into the Politburo Standing Committee, fuelling speculation that he might cling to power for more than another five years. He also refused to play the same long game as Hu, who promoted cadres two generations younger than his leadership team into the Central Committee to groom them to succeed his immediate heir.

Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, the two political high-fliers seen as the two sixth-generation leaders designated by Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao to succeed Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, were promoted into the Central Committee as full members in 2007.

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But in a clear declaration of Xi’s rejection of such arrangements, Sun was purged for corruption and political disloyalty four months before this year’s congress, while Hu Chunhua failed to advance onto the Politburo Standing Committee.

The two youngest officials in the new Central Committee – both born in the 1970s – are 43-year-old Cai Songtao, the party chief of impoverished Lankao county in Henan province, and 47-year-old Zhou Qi, a stem cell biologist who heads the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Poverty relief and innovation are two of Xi’s top policy priorities, with the ambitious campaign to wipe out poverty by 2020 becoming a key mission for the party.

Lankao, which Xi has visited three times in the past decade, has become a showpiece of his war on poverty. A former county chief reputedly worked himself to death trying to improve poor farmers’ lives five decades ago. Under Cai’s watch it was finally removed from the country’s list of impoverished counties in March this year, Xinhua reported, with just 1.27 per cent of its population classified as impoverished, down from 11.8 per cent in 2014.

The lack of young faces in the new Central Committee was a break from the rule laid down by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s when he urged the party to promote more young cadres to take over leading positions, said Matthias Stepan, a China expert at the Berlin-based think tank Merics.

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Deng, the architect of China’s economic reforms, repeatedly stressed the need to “unhesitatingly promote young and middle-aged cadres, especially those in their 30s and 40s”, as he told a meeting of party elders in 1984.

Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was a key beneficiary of Deng’s drive to bring in young blood. In 1982, when he was a 39-year-old technocrat working as the deputy chief of the construction committee in impoverished Gansu province, he entered the Central Committee as an alternate member. A decade later Hu Jintao had ascended to the Politburo Standing Committee, with Deng designating him the heir to Jiang Zemin, who was party chief from 1989 to 2002.

While Deng’s campaign was partially aimed at replacing ageing, uneducated leftists with young technocrats to press ahead with liberalising reforms, it was also prompted by the severe talent gap the party was facing at the time, after the end of the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

“They had a particular problem then: so many of their leaders were the ‘Long Marchers’,” said Professor David Zweig, a veteran observer of Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to the communist revolutionaries who survived Mao’s epic retreat across China in the mid-1930s.

“In 1982, every living member of the 8th party congress in 1956 was in the 12th Central Committee – they were 26 years older. You had this huge ageing of the leadership. It was really in response to that that they went out in [the early 1980s] to look for young cadres.”

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It was against that backdrop that the Communist Youth League rose to prominence as a cradle for promising young cadres and generations of Chinese leaders. Apart from Hu Jintao, another prominent alumnus is current Premier Li Keqiang.

But Zweig said the party no longer viewed rejuvenation of its leadership as such an urgent task.

The youth league has also fallen out of favour with Xi, who places more value on cadres’ relationships, personal political loyalty and grass-roots experience.

“Since the years under Hu Yaobang, young cadres hailing from the youth league had been nurtured as future ministerial-rank officials,” said Shanghai-based political scientist Chen Daoyin. “But fast forward 30 years, they no longer fit Xi’s promotion standards as required by his governing ideas or political line.”

Hu Yaobang, the late party chief who was outed by Deng for being too liberal, was previously a leader of the youth league, which became a base of liberal-leaning cadres in the 1980s.

During a meeting with top youth league officials in 2013, Xi lambasted it for falling “out of step with the times” and losing connection with youth, and chided its officials for their “bureaucratic and arrogant air”. Last year it was excoriated by party discipline inspectors for its self-serving attitude, with some cadres accused of seeing themselves as “political aristocrats”.

Among the 25 younger officials promoted into the 17th Central Committee, eight hailed from Hu Jintao’s youth league power base, and it also provided the youngest member of the 18th Central Committee five years ago, 42-year-old alternate member Liu Jian. He was not re-elected this year.

“Many of the 1970s officials who were senior enough to have a shot for promotion [into the Central Committee] are from the Youth League,” Chen said. “And now they’ve all been barred.”

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While some observers worry the party will eventually face the risk of another generation gap due to the current underrepresentation of young blood in its leadership, Chen said Xi could avoid that by working with his personnel chief, Chen Xi, to fast-track the promotion of young cadres who fitted in with his governing philosophy.

Party Organisation Department chief Chen Xi, who studied chemical engineering alongside Xi at Tsinghua University in Beijing in the 1970s, is widely seen as a close confident of the party leader.

“Many officials have gone through two-step promotions at this congress,” Chen Daoyin said. “We can expect more 1970s officials to follow suit in the future.”

Stepan said the lack of young faces in the Central Committee might also mean the party had been having a harder time recruiting talent.

“The group of people born in the 1970s had different career opportunities and show different career paths than the ones born in the 1950 and 1960s,” he said. “Being a cadre is no longer the most obvious choice to make a career and contribute to the rise of China.”