What Can Data Say: Uncovering Relations among Chinese Elites

Chinese politics, despite a growing amount of data available, is not becoming an easy subject to study. With challenges China faces mounting, Xi Jinping is consolidating power in his own hands, smashing the status-quo with the hammer of the anti-corruption campaign. Under these circumstances, what kind of relations there are between top elite members? Are open source data sufficient or one has to trust the ‘insider’ information that is impossible to verify? Here is an attempt to find an answer.

Understanding the ‘black box’ of Chinese elite politics

‘Now, because there are so many bureaus and officials, governments have established deputies and supervisors.’ This phrase was said by Gongsun Yang, better known as Shang Yang, a prominent legalist scholar who lived in the 4th century BC. It is estimated that at the beginning of the Christian Era there were 130,285 officials of the imperial and provincial governments in the empire. This number was only slightly smaller than the population of Alexandria in Egypt, then the second-largest city in Ancient Rome. There are ample stories of humble peasants who managed to become ministers with the help of a rigorous examination system that served as a major upward social mobility mechanism. The tradition of bureaucracy and state governance in China is perhaps the longest in the world, and no wonder it leaves a deep imprint on how the political system is organised in the modern era, at least in terms of its complexity.

The political system in China is characterised by “partocracy”, with the Communist Party of China (CCP) placed at the heart of the system. Unlike in the USSR, there is no special article determining its leading and guiding role, although the Preamble does highlight the CCP’s important role in modern China’s history. Under the party-state system, there is a continuously shifting balance between Party and state organs. The balance is not that of power since the CCP has got every means at its disposal to prevent any form of political opposition, but that of control over the execution of policies. The term “atrophy and adaptation”, coined by David Shambaugh, a prominent China scholar, captures the historical trend towards reducing the party’s total control to several key areas, namely political, ideological, and organisational affairs. This allows preserving the CCP domination and preventing the collapse of the regime. State organs that form the rest of the so-called ‘big four” pillars of civil power (四大班子), namely the State Council and ministries (the executive branch), the National People’s Congress (the supreme organ of state power and the law-making body) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council (the advisory body) have been increasingly empowered to shape and carry out state policies.

However, the Xi Jinping era is different in many respects, with two interconnected trends being the most conspicuous. The second one is strengthening the party’s control over almost every aspect of life. In 2017, Xi Jinping was elevated to the status of the ‘core leader’, and he himself became the embodiment of the party. Such power consolidation and creating a command-type political system does not come out of the blue. China is at a critical juncture of its development when it should find new drivers of growth and development, and the CCP needs to retain its legitimacy, too. The model of ‘authoritarian resilience’, a popular explanation of the CCP longevity by Andrew J. Nathan, consisting in institutionalising power succession, establishing a meritocratic cadre promotion system and developing the ‘separation of powers’ between party-state institutions, is becoming less relevant as problems have increased dramatically in their number, magnitude, and complexity. Perhaps, the most difficult of all is the moral and physical corruption among the CPC members, which poses a risk for the party to become debilitated and eventually collapse. Many know that there are severe punishments, death penalty included, for Chinese officials charged with corruption. Still, this failed to prevent large scale economic and political malfeasance. Not only is it connected with bribery, but also involves sex scandals, traffic in lucrative military appointments, murders, etc. Under these circumstances, it is very problematic to enact urgent reforms.

Power consolidation is a way in which the party and Xi Jinping as its embodiment chose to tackle these challenges. The price of failure soaring, the CCP’s responsibility for the successful implementation of the reforms is growing as well, and it becomes crucial to ensure that political decisions are not sabotaged and performed diligently. The unprecedented anti-graft campaign has one of its aims to discipline party members, both among the leadership and rank-and-file cadres.

This makes the ‘black box’ of Chinese elite politics even more opaque. Few scholars have before, and even fewer now can have access to personal data on political elites in China and really see what is happening inside the ‘box’. Others have to accept their knowledge at face value. There is a continuing search among the scholarly community as regards how one can use open-source data to analyse the quality of relations among the Chinese elites.

We specifically ignore the ‘factionalist’ research framework. It remains a major approach to studying political elites in China. It assumes that there are informal groups identified based on certain criteria, such as common interest, family or professional background, ideological positions etc. Scholars traditionally identify three factions in China – ‘princelings’, ‘Youth League Faction’ or ‘tuanpai’, and ‘the Shanghai Gang’. The first faction is comprised of the descendants of prominent revolutionary leaders, with Xi Jinping being its most famous representative. ‘Tuanpai’ are, in contrast, ‘self-made’ leaders who managed to pave their path to leadership through the Communist Youth League of China, an organ widely accepted to serve as a social lift for young party cadres. Li Keqiang is believed to be its current leader. ‘The Shanghai Gang’ is an informal group of Chinese elites who were actively promoted during Jiang Zemin’s tenure and have Shanghai political background. The main problem with this approach is that factions are officially forbidden in China, that is why all abovementioned factions are only analytical constructs that can more or less accurately reflect the reality.


Applying Social Network Analysis

In our research, we employ the Social Network Analysis (SNA). SNA originated in sociology and is now widely used in multiple disciplines, including political science. Despite its potential, SNA is surprisingly underused in the analysis of Chinese elites. Its methodology centres around three notions: network, node and connection. As a quantitative research method, SNA uses structured databases that are uploaded to an SNA software for processing. The given result represents a visualised network that becomes the main subject of analysis. The network consists of interconnected nodes. Nodes are designated actors within the network.

For our study, we have identified a group of 71 elite members who constitute an informal category of ‘Party and State Leaders’. This category, although not clearly defined in official documents, is often used in the state media and governmental papers. It includes people holding ‘national’ and ‘sub-national’ ranks, which are the highest among 10 ranks existing in the country. Ranks can be assigned to both party and governmental officials – hence the name of the category – and these people represent top leadership of key central organs – Politburo, the State Council, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council (CPPCC).

We have compiled a database consisting of their career biographies; all the data were collected from official sources. Using the database, we have identified their career connections from 1978 to 2019. By connection technically we mean a one-year experience of sharing a workplace. Multiple connections are possible, with the largest number of connections available under this model being four: the same province, the same organ, the same town within the province (for provincial and municipal levels), and the same department within the organ. We understand that having common experience at the same workplace does not necessarily mean that it is positive – professional conflicts, personal dislikes or simply lack of contact are all possible. However, we proceed from the assumption that the likelihood of establishing strong interpersonal ties is greater among cadres who share their professional experience, and these ties are formed for the long haul.

The machine, based on pre-set parameters, has produced the following result (see pic. 1). The positioning of the nodes (elite members) is random and does not have any significance. What is important here is the colour of the nodes, the thickness and the colour of connections. A thick and red line signifies that the connection is strong and vice versa. Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, both career diplomats, have the strongest connection due to their Foreign Ministry background. There are also thick individual connections between several officials in the ‘south-west’ of the network. They are the representatives of the so-called democratic parties. Although the CCP plays a dominant role in the Chinese political system, other parties – there are eight of them who comprise the ‘United Front’ – are allowed to and do participate, at least formally, in the political life of China. They hold a certain number of seats in the CPPCC and the NPC. There are also seven square-angled boxes, these are Politburo Standing Committee members (the most powerful body in China), identified for convenience.



The colour of the nodes signifies the ‘group’ the software assigned the node to. It means that, according to the machine, connections between the members of the ‘group’ are stronger than between them and the other members of the network. Our task is to interpret the results delivered by the software. We underscore that the data processed by the machine presents no qualitative significance to it.


Interpreting the findings

How can we make sense of these ‘groups’? Let us start with identifying institutional affiliation, given our selection of elite members. One can only identify two groups fitting this parameter: the ‘terracotta group’ both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang belong to mainly consists of the Politburo members, while the ‘red group’ is comprised of the CPPCC members. Why one cannot identify the NPC? If there is a Politburo ‘group’, why do several Politburo members belong to other ones? What one can tell of the ‘yellow’ and ‘orange groups’?

Although NPC members do make up the majority of the ‘yellow group’, their overall presence is actually fractured. For example, Tibetan Padma Choling, Vice-Chairman of the 13th NPC (2018-exp.2023) has stronger ties with legendary Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai who has occupied top official positions in the autonomous region since 1940, than with other NPC members. One can see from the picture that connections in the lower part of the network, where most NPC members are located, are the weakest. Although the NPC and the CPPCC have got a number of similarities, i.e. both are considered quasi-parliamentary organs and having limited political influence, both hold their yearly sessions simultaneously early in spring (‘Two Sessions’) etc., top members of the latter are better interconnected than those of the former.

Speaking further of the ‘yellow group’, we can see that five Politburo members, namely Wang Chen, Yang Xiaodu, Ding Xuexiang, Han Zheng, and Li Xi, belong there. Wang Chen is the Chairman of the NPC which provides room for interpretation. Others have no such affiliation, and we cannot explain why the machine made such calculations, which is a feature of qualitative analysis. What does unite them though is their Shanghai background. Han Zheng and Ding Xuexiang spent most part of their careers in Shanghai, while Yang Xiaodu held the position of the head of the United Front Work in 2007 when Xi Jinping had a brief tenure as the city Committee Secretary. Although Li Xi arrived in Shanghai later, he is also considered a trusted person due to his reported family ties with Xi Jinping. These four elite members have received significant promotions since 2012 when Xi Jinping became the CCP leader. Ding Xuexiang, Yang Xiaodu, and Li Xi entered the Politburo in 2017; Han Zheng became the Politburo Standing Committee the same year and received the portfolio of the 1st Ranked Vice-Premier in charge of economic management.

Of larger interest here is the last – ‘orange group’. It also consists of five people – Cai Qi, Chen Min’er, Huang Kunming, Li Qiang, and Xia Baolong. All of them have the Zhejiang province background. Moreover, Cai Qi and Huang Kunming both worked in Fujian province before moving to Zhejiang. Zhejiang and Fujian are two wealthy coastal provinces and are among the main drivers of China’s economic growth. Except for Xia Baolong, who has passed his career hallmark of being the party Secretary and Governor of Zhejiang, these elite members are expected to play an ever-increasingly important role in Chinese politics – like members of the Shanghai group, they are also considered to be members of Xi Jinping’s ‘inner circle’.

What does it all tell us about the quality of the relations among the members of Chinese elites? First, common professional background in China does indeed translate into informal connections, since the software highlights groups of elite members that are generally acknowledged to belong to certain informal groups, namely people connected to Xi Jinping. Second, one can identify certain provinces that serve as launching pads on the way to top leadership positions. Under Xi Jinping, these are particularly Fujian, Shanghai, and Zhejiang. Although they are not the only ones, several Politburo members have their political background there. Third, not only have people promoted by Xi Jinping have strong personal ties with him but also among each other. The ‘orange group’ and the four elite members from the ‘yellow group’ are identified as networks per se. One can assume that they can indeed make up a team headed by Xi Jinping to push forward necessary policies. Open source data do tell us a great deal about Chinese elites. This attempt can be called successful, and further steps need to be made.

This work was supported by the Russian Science Foundation, grant number № 19-78-10144.