As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary on 1 July, the world’s attention will turn towards a political organisation that has gone through significant transformations, especially when it comes to its outlook towards education, both for the public at large and its own members.
Educational merit and power have intertwined in the recent history of Chinese politics. Institutions such as Central Party School have transformed the prospects of Chinese leaders.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution caused severe disruption to education for the majority of Chinese youth. Between 1965 and 1977, no entrance exams (Gaokao) for college admissions were held, and the overall state of education suffered in China, particularly impacting the non-elite students. During this period, Mao promoted a select group of college students, generally from peasants, soldiers, and workers background.
Deng Xiaoping restored the college entrance exams and reversed Mao’s disruptive policies after the latter’s death.
Reform after the revolution
In 1977, 5.7 million Chinese students took the college entrance exam after almost a decade. This allowed them to seek education, setting the stage for Deng’s 1978 “reform and opening up” of China.
The State Council in 1982 began institutional reforms, which encouraged the hiring of young and educated ministers and officials. “The age of ministry-rank bureaucrats fell from 64 to 60, and the age of bureau-level officials from 58 to 54,” according to Qun Wang, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Toledo.
The 1982 administrative reforms increased the number of college-educated ministers and vice-ministers in the Chinese government from 38 per cent to 59 per cent between 1982 and 1987. After the reforms, by 1987, 45 per cent of the ministers had engineering education, from two per cent in 1982. Before this, it was training in “political work” or law that had traditionally provided access to power in Chinese politics, during the Mao era.
By 1997, the percentage of ministers with engineering or other technical education rose to 70 per cent, which was primarily made possible due to the promotion of technocrats. Up to 77 per cent of the governors of Chinese provinces had technical training by 1997. The foothold of technocrats in Chinese politics was at its peak in 1997 when seven members of Politburo Standing Committee had Science and Engineering degrees.
It’s been over two decades since this peak of technocrats in the government, but popular misconception among the public remains that leaders in China still come from this educational background — with Engineering degrees.
Disciplines change, not the merit criteria
The technocratic control of politics began to shift in the following years. In 2008, 41 per cent of the ministers had technocratic education, which further dropped to 12 per cent by 2013.
The current 19th National Congress (or party congress) of the Chinese Communist Party leadership rank is dominated by leaders with degrees in Humanities and Social Sciences. The party congress is the highest body within the CCP and meets every five years.
Four out of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee hold degrees in Social Science and Humanities. The majority of the Central Committee members are trained in Law, Economics, and other disciplines of Social Science.
Within the Central Committee, 45 members have a doctoral degree. Out of these 45, three members of Politburo and two members of Politburo Standing Committee have a doctoral degree. Xi Jinping is one of the Politburo Standing Committee members who holds a doctoral degree, the other being premier Li Keqiang. China’s top two leaders have doctoral degrees.
China’s leadership rank is currently made up of broadly two factions that are called “tuan pai” and “princelings”. “Tuan pai” or “Communist Youth League faction” — also known as “Hu Jintao faction” — is characterised by their non-elite background as opposed to the “princelings” who are members of the old Communist lineage, going back to the era of the Long March. “Tuan pai” faction members rose through the Communist Youth League and were promoted by Hu Jintao. Leaders close to Xi Jinping are sometimes referred to as the “Zhejiang faction”.
“Princelings” are the leaders with elite political pedigree, and most are related to the 10,000 Red Army fighters who survived the Long March in 1935.
The general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, holds a doctoral law degree (Marxism) from the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua University, which he received through part-time studies. But Xi himself is one of the “princelings”, son of Xi Zhongxun, former vice-premier and Politburo member.
Li Keqiang, the premier of the State Council and second most powerful leader, holds a PhD in economics from Peking University. Li is widely considered the most well-educated premier of China since the foundation of the PRC in 1949. Li is at the helm of China’s economic planning.
Most of the Central Committee members are educated at top Chinese universities. Currently, only six members are known to have degrees from outside of China. The degrees of some of the members are unknown. But the percentage of ministers and officials with foreign education remains low, and most look after finance, foreign affairs, science, and technology.
One of the most prominent leaders with foreign education is Liu He. Liu holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University (1995). He is regarded as China’s economic czar and has negotiated the trade deal signed with the Donald Trump administration. During his tenure at the State Planning Commission from 1988 to 1998, Liu was involved in drafting 11 industrial policies. According to Bloomberg, Liu was recently picked by Xi Jinping to lead the development of third-generation semiconductors and reduce the dependence on the US.
“Since the current crisis, the global growth centre has been moving to the Asia-Pacific region, the G20 forum has been formed, and the relative power of nations has been changing fast, contributing to a change in the international economic order,” wrote Liu He in a 2014 Harvard publication.
Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo and China’s top diplomat, holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. Yang also holds a master’s degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also has a doctoral degree in history from Nanjing University through part-time studies. Yang is currently the face of negotiations with the US amid growing tensions.
Perhaps the most exemplary life story of rising to the top is that of Wang Yang. Wang began his career as a manual labourer and later served as manager in a food factory in Anhui province. He started his journey in the Communist Party by joining the Communist Youth League before rising the ranks to the top.
Though he was from a humble background, Wang’s extraordinary rise is attributed to his close ties to former premier Hu Jintao. He is part of the “tuan pai” faction.
Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning is another individual who rose to the ranks of the party without the elite family ties. Wang began his career in the Publication Bureau of the Shanghai municipal government. He was dubbed by some as “China’s Kissinger” and has been at the forefront of the “Xi Jinping thought” campaign.
Despite the political pedigree, educational merit is still essential to rising the ladder of Chinese Communist Party leadership. In China, even the “princelings” have graduate degrees.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)