Interview originally done for Young China Watchers on 17 March, 2021.
Victor Shih is an associate professor of political economy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. He is currently engaged in a study of how the coalition formation strategies of the founding leaders of China had a profound impact on the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He is also constructing a large database on biographical information of elites in China to better understand the importance of networks in political decision making. Shih holds a PhD in government from Harvard University.
Young Yang is a postdoctoral fellow at the China Data Lab at UC San Diego. His research interests include policy diffusion analysis using the corpus-based method as well as impact of information technology on the decision-making process. He received his Ph.D. from the School of Management at Zhejiang University and was a research scientist at Yale School of Public Health working on smart health and medical reforms in China.
Shih and Yang are involved in the creation of the CCP Elite Database which provides detailed biographical information of roughly 1700 CCP elite who were or are active government officials during the 18th Central Committee (2012-2017) and the 19th Central Committee (2017-2022). The key characteristics visualized include the elite’s birth year, gender, ethnicity, county-level birthplace, education level, university alma maters, year of entering and retiring from the CCP, work experience prior to becoming a CCP member, revolutionary and purged background, and their career trajectories since 1949.
(Pic credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Young China Watchers (YCW): What do you think can explain the small share of the CCP elite graduating from traditionally elite schools like Peking, Tsinghua, or Renmin, and the large portion of them born in former base areas of the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army? Does it have anything to do with “field experience” that was strongly emphasized in high-level leaders in the past?
Young Yang (YY): Currently, the career growth path for CCP members still stems from the grassroots units. Comparing junior positions [in the government] with other corporate or research or overseas opportunities, graduates of elite schools would prefer [those] opportunities. When they get to a point where it requires a higher degree for promotion, those who graduated from non-elite schools often choose to go to Party Schools to fulfill that requirement. Compared to the traditionally elite schools, Party Schools are much more friendly to those who are working.
Victor Shih (VS): For graduates from elite schools, my sense is that they have a lot of attractive options. They can go into institutions like investment banks and tech companies, which recruit very heavily from Tsinghua, Peking University, Zhejiang University, Fudan University, etc. There are of course some people who are very interested in government, but just like in the U.S. what happens is that a lot of Harvard graduates are like, “Oh my God, I want to work for the U.S. government.” They go work for a couple of years, but then they find out it’s a complete waste of time because of bureaucracy and red tape. They leave and someone will hire them for sure. However, the people who did not graduate from Tsinghua and Peking University can’t leave because there are simply no options left for them.
As for provincial standing committee members, we have noticed that by the time [those from elite universities] get to a fairly high level, a lot of them have washed out, or they never joined in the first place because they have a lot of options. Even though they are still overrepresented among the elite, they don’t dominate the elite. Like in any organization, a lot of people who end up at the top are the people who just, for whatever reason, never left, and so they automatically get moved up. Even at the vice-provincial level, a lot of people rose to a fairly high level just because they checked the right boxes and have been around for a long time.
YCW: What does the data tell us about upward mobility within the CCP? Does meritocracy ever have a role to play in the whole process?
YY: When you look at the characteristics of the data, you need to put that in the context of the time when they joined the government. It is fundamentally different from, let’s say, my generation, where an emphasis was put on skills development. Although we did not put the pre-17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (NCCCP) data online, when you compare the educational percentage between different time periods, you can still observe an increase in the number of elite school graduates in provincial standing committees. This, at least, tells us that more and more people with elite school degrees are joining the political system. We can also see the change in [the CCP members’] educational or school composition of the full central committee of the 19th NCCCP with alternative central committee and provincial standing committee of the 18th NCCCP to see whether or not those with a degree from elite schools are more likely to get promoted.
VS: At a lower level, there is a role for meritocracy. I think now Xi Jinping is making it a requirement that one must have had some service in a poor or minority area like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Gansu. Even under Hu Jintao, there were incentives like that. This is not necessarily meritocracy, but you have to show your commitment to the party, and basically obey the party and reach certain targets. For example, there are tax collection targets that officials need to meet, and there used to be birth quotas which required officials to ensure that there are not so many births within their jurisdiction. So, I think there are some performance-based promotion incentives at the lower level.
But we also found that at the provincial or higher level, promotion is very factionally based. It explains 60 to 70% of the variation. If someone has either a studying or work relationship with the current General Secretary, then he or she has a much higher chance of getting promoted at a high level – either from an alternate seat in the Central Committee into the full seat in the Central Committee, or from the Central Committee to the Politburo. We saw that at the 19th Party Congress, where nearly all of the new Politburo members promoted during the Party Congress used to work for Xi Jinping or work with Xi Jinping in some capacity. The only exception was the new Politburo member in charge of foreign policy. In all of his career, he never worked with Xi Jinping.
YCW: What message does the data tell us about current factional conflicts?
YY: The next step we are going to do is to use this portal to identify and analyze factions. We will add alumnus, similar past working experience and fellow townsmen [hometown affiliation] information to identify and analyze factions in the near future.
VS: The data we posted has no factional affiliation. From what I can see, there is a large share of high-level officials with a past working relationship with Xi Jinping and they have succeeded so that his followers now dominate the Politburo. So I suggest there is less factional conflict because no one is fighting against him anymore. The interesting thing going forward is, when will his followers begin to fight with each other? And when do they begin to clash with Xi Jinping himself? We haven’t seen any sign of that, but it is possible in the future because this happened during the Mao period.
YCW: What causes the concentration of elite from Northern China? Is it in any sense related to the traditionally “rebellious” nature of Southern China or its long geographical distance from the political center in Beijing?
YY: I think many people from Northern provinces still have this guanbenwei (官本位) thinking (editor’s note: thinking that considers official rank as almost the sole criterion of an official’s worth), especially in Shandong. They have a very strong belief in becoming an official as a positive career path. They think this brings honor to their family. I think this in a way encourages people to sit for the civil servant exam and become a government official.
VS: It is revolutionary history. The Japanese left Hebei and Shandong provinces alone because they did not have enough troops to occupy those areas, so Deng Xiaoping developed big base areas in Shandong and Hebei, and some parts of Anhui and Henan. This explains why Hebei and Shandong are still today a massive source of CCP officials.
Daniel Koss from Harvard reveals in his book that where there was a high density of CCP members in 1949 is still where we see high density of CCP members today. The only exception is Zhejiang, but even Zhejiang had a lot of communists before liberation. That explains why there still are not that many elites who come from Guangdong, because there were not that many communists there in 1949.
YCW: Your data reveals that the CCP continues to be the political party with one of the worst gender imbalances in the world. How do you make sense of this situation?
YY: There are few women who hold high-level positions within the CCP. For example, one out of 25 Politburo members and one out of 20 members of the 19th NCCCP central committee is female. In the 13th National People’s Congress, this number was 24.9%. Although this is not rare in political systems across the world, the low number is still shocking to many. I think role identity and social norms play important roles in holding back women to take up high-level positions, as does retirement age.
VS: It is abysmal. It is still dismal at the provincial level, but the big problem is at the Central Committee level. There are so few women relative to the total – at the very most 5%. If we think about China as the second largest economy with hyper growth and technological advancement, it is atrocious to see such gender imbalance. There is no good explanation for it. It is not so much at the recruitment phase. For the lowest level cadres, although there are still more men than women, it is at least still 60-40. But at a certain middle level, it just drops. A lot has to do with the glass ceiling. There is a gender role reason too. That needs a lot of research, and I am always thinking about collaborating with scholars who work on county-level officials, lower-level officials, because we basically need to follow a cohort of cadres from a low level all the way to the high level, to see where the system is losing all the women.
Historically, the communists were supposed to overturn parts of traditional Chinese culture including gender norms. In the early Communist Party there were a lot of very powerful women. But then what happened was the militarization of the party when gender norms reasserted themselves. Women were sidelined. But even during the fighting in the 1940s, there were many examples of women who were the political commissar in fighting units. What is very strange is that in 1949, when the fighting stopped, a big handful of powerful women, including Zhou Enlai’s wife Deng Yingchao and Zhu De’s wife Kang Keqing, were demoted to the All-China Women’s Federation. That became a dead end for many women cadres as they got pushed aside because the association had no power.
What is stranger is why is it that women became even weaker than when there was fighting before 1949? It is one of the great puzzles of modern China. The result of that is still with us today. The reason why all these women dropped out of the work race is still part of the reason why we hardly have any women at a high level today.
YCW: How do you plan to take the findings forward? In what ways are the findings applicable in Chinese political science research? What other related research work do you plan to conduct?
YY: This project is among the various projects we are doing since we started data collection three years ago. We realize data is an integral part of any social research, so we are thinking of sharing our data with the research community working on China. We hope to use this portal to let researchers know what data currently is available, and this might inspire them to find out more. I am meanwhile helping with one project conducted by Professor Margaret Roberts from UC San Diego. It involves analyzing Chinese local newspapers since 2012. I am planning to build a similar visualization portal like this CCP Portal to observe how different narratives have developed and changed during COVID-19 and in what ways different newspapers spread to different localities. I am also interested in looking at how the relations between then classmates or then colleagues would affect promotion of these CCP members.
VS: I also have one project that will use the data Young Yang is analyzing, which is on time allocation of provincial leaders. We are also using a model that predicts who gets promoted to explain how harsh the crackdowns of protests are against promotion. The research question is: if you think you have a high chance of being promoted, are you going to crack down harder or softer? There are risks either way: if you crack down hard, it could precipitate the next wave of protests; or it could end it. They can also choose to leave it alone, but if left alone, the protest can get bigger, and then their superiors blame them. If one is about to retire, is he going to just try to contain it and not crack down so hard because this may bring more trouble? We are trying to look for high quality data on protests and on what happens to the protests.
— Interview by Greta Lai
(Pic credit: China Data Lab)