The Return of Technocracy in CPC’s Elite Politics

By — Rahul Karan Reddy;

Technocrats are set to re-emerge as a defining feature of China’s top leadership in Xi Jinping’s third term. As per the (re)emerging trend of  “red and expert” (you hong you zhuan) from the Mao era, Party members with an education in STEM fields or social sciences, work experience in the private sector or State-owned enterprises (SOEs), sufficient provincial or national-level administrative experience, and a record of loyalty to the Party ‘core’ stand a stronger chance of making it to the 20th Central Committee (CC).

Several shifts within the Party, economic challenges facing the country, and demographic pressures are likely to condition the appointment of personnel at the 20th Party Congress in favour of technocrats with administrative experience and certified loyalty to the Party. Hence, the appointment of technocrats to lead provinces, ministries, and party organs will decisively influence economic performance in China and Xi’s vision of national rejuvenation for better or worse. It will also mean careful management of the composition of the Party to maintain its red and revolutionary character while ensuring the participation of educated elites to execute Xi’s vision.

Origins of Technocracy
The promotion of political elites under Mao Zedong was exemplified by his slogan, “outsiders (non-specialists) lead insiders (specialists)”. The Party under Mao was dominated by labourers and poor peasants; according to former China President Yang Shangkun, they accounted for 60-63 % of the party and intellectuals accounted for only 5 to 10 %. Since class background determined political loyalty, officials were recruited and promoted based on their class and revolutionary credentials. The Party’s emphasis on class struggle meant that personnel management systems after 1949 were biased against educated and intellectual classes. Other factors also limited the participation of educated elites in Party politics such as distrust of functional specialisation, discontinuation of cadre education programs, and purges of “reactionary forces” (intellectuals and entrepreneurs).

Educated and technically qualified cadres were integrated into the Party when pragmatic economic development became necessary to repair the legitimacy of the Party. Their participation in Party politics was facilitated by Deng Xiaoping’s call to promote officials who were “revolutionary, younger, more educated and more technically specialised” drawing from his deduction that “science and technology are the primary productive forces”.  New cadre recruitment rules implemented in the 1980s emphasised education qualifications and formed the basis for recruitment and promotions. For instance, the “Notice Regarding the Opinion of Reshuffling the Provincial-Level Leading Groups” issued in 1983 stipulated that at least 50% of the municipal leadership should have an education level higher than senior high school and 33% of county-level leaders should have a college-level education. The decade of economic development after 1978 and personnel management reforms created a new group of professionals: government technocrats, private businessmen, lawyers, and academics that constituted a new class of Party elites that Hong Yung Lee calls bureaucratic technocrats.

Technocracy peaked under Jiang Zemin. During his tenure, technocrats were mainly engineers trained in the natural sciences, completing the transition from a revolutionary society ruled by soldiers and peasants to an industrial society ruled by engineers and planners. Jiang himself was an electrical engineer by training who eventually became Minister of Electronic Industries in 1983. He instituted a ‘dual technocrat’ model for provincial leadership, wherein the Party Secretary and Governor were technocrats. Technocrats received 88% of provincial promotions in Jiang’s first term. Moreover, Jiang’s “Three Represents” (sange daibiao) emphasised technological revolution and productive forces, and he reversed a Party order in 2001 banning private businessmen from joining the Party.

Jiang’s second term saw 66 members in the CC who were technocrats; this number dropped by nearly 50% during Hu Jintao’s tenure as General Secretary, with the decline continuing well into Hu’s second term.  Under Xi, however, technocracy returned marked by a new generation of technocrats reflecting a shift in political and economic priorities.

Technocracy Under Xi

A steady increase in the number of technocrats from Xi’s first to the second term suggests a similar increase in Xi’s third term, although it is unlikely to reach the same levels as under Jiang. Currently, 37 technocrats in the 19th CC occupy provincial leadership positions and even though provincial governments no longer follow the dual technocrat model, at least one of the top two posts in provinces is held by a technocrat. For instance, in China’s most economically advanced provinces like Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Hunan, either the Party Secretary or the Governor is a technocrat. Educational qualifications are also relevant for promotions considering that in Xi’s second term 17 out of 30 top provincial promotions have gone to candidates from STEM backgrounds compared to only 6 out of 23 promotions in Xi’s first term.

Technocrats in Xi’s regime reflect the political culture established by the General Secretary. They operate in a political environment that rewards political loyalty with promotion and upward mobility. The Party has placed a premium on political loyalty, diminishing the importance of technocratic competence. This has significantly influenced the composition of the Politburo which is mostly composed of Party bureaucrats: generalists with experience in administration whose prospects of promotion are determined by loyalty to the Party core. Xi’s Politburo consists of 8 technocrats; while this is still less compared to Jiang Zemin’s Politburo in 1997 which had 16, it is still a marked rise in their number as compared to Hu.

Technocrats in Xi’s regime also mirror his policy preferences. They are drawn from the aerospace, technology, finance, and advanced manufacturing sectors like electronics and semiconductors. Under Xi, the number of technocrats from emerging industries accounted for 45% and 62% of provincial leadership positions in the 18th CC and the 19th CC respectively. Their selection is in line with Xi’s emphasis on developing strategic trade sectors. Technocrats also represent the ambition to achieve specific goals that Beijing has set for the short and long run. Take the case of Zhang Qingwei, an academic appointed chairman of Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) based on his extensive experience in China’s manned space program. His contributions to the development of China’s indigenously developed airline, the C-919, culminated in his appointment as Hunan’s Party Secretary. Technocrats like Zhang are emerging as provincial leaders after successfully enabling Xi’s vision and enhancing the Party’s legitimacy in the process.

Political Technocracy
Technocrats are making successful transitions to provincial and national leadership roles, like Xinjiang Party Secretary, Ma Xingrui and Zhejiang Party Secretary, Yuan Jiajun, who were heavily involved in China’s manned and unmanned space programs and are now in charge of important provinces. Other technocrats are drawn from China’s defence industry such as Liaoning Party Secretary Zhang Guoqing and Sichuan governor, Huang Qiang. Zhang was head of China North Industries Group Corporation and Huang was a designer of warplanes, particularly the Xian JH-7. Technocrats from the Environmental and healthcare sector have also moved into provincial leadership positions. Shandong’s Party Secretary, Li Ganjie, was a nuclear safety expert and Chen Jining — the current mayor of Beijing— is an environmental scientist.

Some officials even claim that Xi Jinping places greater trust in technocrats from the aerospace and defence sectors. Xi’s apparent preference for technocrats from the aerospace and defence sectors reveals the kind of officials he would more likely choose for a promotion. Technocrats generally lack the political connections and networks that facilitate upward mobility within the Party, which makes them less threatening to Xi’s authority and easier to trust. Furthermore, they tend to have a more solution-oriented approach to policy problems compared to bureaucrats, which aligns with Xi’s preference for creating policy while expecting officials to execute them. And finally, technocrats may play an important role in navigating the economic and social challenges confronting the country, especially when experienced hands like Li Keqiang, and Liu He are set to retire.

However, despite such factors working in their favour, technocrats face certain challenges to their continued emergence and growth within the Party. For instance, they are less likely to be accepted by Party apparatchiks whose monopoly on political power is threatened by technocrats, thus hindering their prospects of rising independently within the Party. Furthermore, as seen with crackdowns on China’s private businesses and businessmen like Alibaba, ByteDance, and Jack Ma, technocrats are like “peacocks that the party ought to control not too tightly, lest they suffocate, and not too loosely, lest they fly away”. Technocrats serve their purpose in Party politics and managing their participation is in the Party’s interest. Hence, it is crucial for Xi to strike the right balance vis-à-vis technocracy: alienating them could fuel rival factions or result in them forming an independent power base. Managing the appointment of technocrats to ensure that they are “redder” than expert is important for Xi’s control over policy-making and the Party.

The importance of technocrats to China’s centenary goals and Xi’s Jinping’s stated vision is unmistakable. Their will play an instrumental role in executing important policies like common prosperity, dual circulation, Belt and Road initiative and other domestic economic programs responsible for stability at home and China’s international image abroad. Although technocrats are yet to evolve into a cohesive political force with a shared ideology and group identity, their expanding presence in the Party will influence political culture of elite politics in China.

Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst with a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century.

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