China’s process for choosing top leaders is opaque, but not unpredictable. There are patterns in who rises and falls at the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade reshuffle like the one that begins Oct. 18 in Beijing.
A Bloomberg News analysis of the careers of more than five dozen senior Chinese leaders over the past quarter century revealed trends both expected and surprising: People who run big cities such as Beijing or Shanghai are practically guaranteed spots in the upper echelons, while some rich industrial provinces like Guangdong have had less political clout relative to their economic strength.
The 19th Party Congress will select about 200 people to run China for the next five years, from army generals to executives from China’s biggest state-run conglomerates. A week of pageantry culminates when President Xi Jinping and the handful of other leaders on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee walk onto a red-carpeted stage to present themselves to the world.
The Standing Committee meets weekly to approve all major decisions. The larger Politburo gathers every month. Bigger still is the Central Committee, which assembles at least once a year to ratify broad policy shifts.
Running a Big Region Is Important
To make it onto one of those powerful bodies, the Communist Party’s 89 million members must check certain boxes. Often that includes holding positions at government ministries, military units and local government. But regional leadership posts have proven the best springboard for higher office.
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The chart below shows the career paths of all 26 people who have made it onto the elite Standing Committee since 1992, when reformist leader Deng Xiaoping established the current succession system. Xi, for instance, advanced from party chief of a large city, through a pair of lesser provinces, before finally moving to Shanghai, China’s financial center. From there, he jumped straight to the Standing Committee.
Some Regions Hold More Sway
A review of the broader group of 70 Politburo members since 1992 shows that some of mainland China’s 31 regions provide better hope for advancement than others. The governors, mayors and party chiefs of politically sensitive areas have received promotions more often than their peers in wealthier, more economically important provinces.
The charts below compare the relative political influence of a region—the number of Politburo members it has produced—with its economic influence, its share of the nation’s gross domestic product. Regions get credit for every top job held there by future Politburo member. So Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, which were all led by Xi at some point, all get credit for producing a future Politburo member.
Shanghai, which was also once run by former President Jiang Zemin, has been the most consistent producer of future state leaders. Fujian—home to military installations targeting Taiwan—has also outperformed its coastal peers. Meanwhile, the remote western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang have emerged as proving grounds for dealing with the challenges of separatism and religious extremism.
Age Drives the Promotion Process
Retirement conventions in place since 2002 compel Standing Committee members age 68 or older to step down after the party congress. That means aspiring state leaders must climb through the system at a young enough age to ensure a long tenure at the highest levels of power.
The graphic below shows that the past two presidents and premiers were among the youngest members when they joined Politburo, allowing them to serve more terms at the highest ranks. The gray circles show the ages of the 70 Politburo members appointed at each congress since 1992.
The elevation of Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua to the Politburo at relatively young ages five years ago fueled speculation they were headed for high office. However, Sun’s career was unexpectedly cut short when he was removed in July over unspecified corruption allegations.
The Politburo Must Include Key Constituencies
Many Politburo seats are allocated to powerful groups within the Communist Party, creating an equilibrium that has changed little in recent years.
The Standing Committee always contains the president, premier and the heads of top legislative bodies. Politburo seats are reserved for the heads of the most important regions—such as Beijing and Chongqing—and the most powerful uniformed officers on the Central Military Commission.
There Are Few Women and Minorities at the Top
China’s leadership is more homogeneous than either the party or the nation as a whole. No woman or member of the country’s recognized 55 minority groups has ever been promoted to the Standing Committee.
Only 5 percent of the Central Committee’s members are women, compared with 20 percent of the party or 49 percent of the country’s population. A similar share hail from ethnic minorities, who make up about 8 percent of the citizenry.
Here Are Some Officials to Watch
Even under Xi, who has amassed enough power to challenge conventions, the Politburo’s structure makes it possible to predict who will rise. Below are some Standing Committee contenders to keep an eye on for advancement at the congress, from oldest to youngest:
The climb to the top of China’s ruling party is long and fraught with peril. Even the most meticulous of officials can see their careers suddenly cut short by investigation or the rules of succession. The few who make it will play a central role in running the world’s largest country into the next decade.