Xi Jinping will Break the Previous Pattern of Political Selection

by Jonghyuk Lee

The Expert Briefing is a special column dedicated to publishing the analysis and views of 21st Century China Center scholars on Chinese economy, politics, and society.

The 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会) (CCP) convened on October 18.  Much speculation has focused on the composition of the new leadership line-up for Xi’s next term, particularly the Politburo members (政治局委员), that will be unveiled in a few days. Current discussions or speculations are mostly based on purported leaks, anecdotes, and narrative description bench marked against previous party congresses. In a recent working paper, Professor Victor Shih and I presented our predictions for the 19th Politburo using detailed biographical data from the CCP Elite Database.

We built an Ensemble Model stacked with 10 different machine learning algorithms. In the model, we inserted over 80 features of the CCP leaders as variables, including biographical connections (e.g. age, gender, university alma maters, minority status…), career experiences (e.g. job experiences, job positions, job diversities…), factional (e.g. prince-ling, Tsinghua, Shanghai, Youth League, Petroleum…) and network ties (e.g. network centrality, work connections with the top leaders…). Each machine learning algorithm selects the important variables, removes the irrelevant ones, or selects a sufficient subset for predictions. These models are consistent with the academic literature on elite promotions, and they draw evidence from the 14th PC to the 18th PC (1992-2012).

The results are surprising. We do not make the claim that what we predict will be the real outcome of this week’s leadership selection, but predictions entirely determined by the machine learning models can be thought of as a baseline established by past precedent. They represent what the slate of candidates would have looked like in a world consistent with past patterns.

According to our prediction, several members of the current 18th Politburo such as Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, and Zhao Leji are expected to stay on. That should leave 13-14 spots to be filled by newer candidates.  Below is a list of candidates for the Politburo that are predicted by our best models. We expect that the actual outcome will deviate significantly from this list. Already, our results do not match the rumored list of Politburo members (members whose names are in bold are both predicted by our model and by one of the widely-circulated slate of candidates).

Lu Hao (陆昊) – Governor of Heilongjiang

Jia Ting’an (贾廷安) – Vice Director of Political Work Department of the CMC

Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) – Party Secretary of Tianjin

Chen Min’er (陈敏尔) – Party Secretary of Chongqing

Peng Qinghua (彭清华) – Party Secretary of Guangxi

Li Jianhua (李建华) – Party Secretary of Ningxia

Che Jun (车俊) – Governor of Zhejiang

Huang Qifan (黄奇帆) – Vice Chairman of Work Committee of the NPC

Bayinchaolu (巴音朝鲁) – Party Secretary of Jilin

Liu Yazhou (刘亚洲) – Political Commissar of PLA Defense University

Lou Jiwei (楼继伟) – President of National Council for Social Security Fund

Wang Guosheng (王国生) – Party Secretary of Qinghai

Hu Zejun (胡泽君) – Vice Procurator General of Supreme Procuratorate

Chen Quanguo (陈全国) – Party Secretary of Xinjiang

Quite a few Politburo front-runners such as Cai Qi, Ying Yong, Li Qiang, Chen Xi, Huang Kunming, Ding Xuexiang, and Liu He are discounted by our model because they lack the diversity of work experience and breadth of networks characteristic of past Politburo members. Until recently many of these men were not even Central Committee members, but the one factor they have in common is their close relationship with Xi Jinping, either as former aides or personal friends.

Take Cai Qi for example. His fast-track promotion to Party Secretary of Beijing in May 2017 broke nearly all the conventions in Chinese politics in the post-Cultural Revolution period. Cai was not even an alternate member of the Central Committee when he was appointed to an office whose occupant in the past would have been accorded Politburo membership. By virtue of his current position and Xi’s trust in him, Cai Qi is almost certain to gain a seat on the Politburo after the 19th Party Congress. Viewed against the background of the sudden and unceremonious removal of Sun Zhengcai, a once-promising political star in the party and new patterns of promotion before the 19th Party Congress, Chinese politics seems to be entering a brave new world.

In this new world of Chinese politics, personal connections to Xi seem to matter more than institutionalized patterns from past promotions. We are not the first to argue that Xi Jinping may be breaking with the conventions, at least since Deng Xiaoping, to achieve a high degree of personalization of political power. However, modeling Politburo promotion based on historical norms gives us a way to measure the deviation from the norm, hence the degree of personalization of power under Xi. By the same token, our model also identifies the losers, such as Lu Hao, who would have been promoted under ‘normal’ institutional rules, but are denied promotion under the new system. How to mollify such losers will be a challenge to the Communist Party as it rallies around Xi and his loyal followers.

Other articles in this series:

To Measure Xi Jinping’s Power, Look to the Provinces and the Garrisons

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Jonghyuk Lee

is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

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