By Joe Bauer
As Xi Jinping 习近平 strode onto stage in October 2017 with six men in tow, observers were quick to point out that not a single one belonged to what is commonly known as China’s “sixth generation” of leadership. The seven men on stage together formed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful political body composed of top party officials. The unveiling was a part of the 19th Party Congress, the bi-decade event that paves the way for the next five years of political and party rule in China. As Xi would be entering his second five-year term in 2017, speculation was rife as to which young officials may be promoted to take the reins down the road.
Party convention has for decades followed the rule of qi-shang ba-xia (七上八下, literally ‘seven up, eight down’), stipulating that leaders who were 67 years old or younger at the time of the Party Congress could continue on to the Politburo for an additional five-year term, while those 68 and older would traditionally step down and retire. Officials born after 1959 are considered part of the sixth generation and would thus be eligible to serve a full ten years following the 20th Party Congress in Fall 2022.
Heading into the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Hu Chunhua 胡春华 (born in 1963), was the only Politburo member to meet the qi-shang ba-xia age standards following the purging of Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai 孙政才 (born in 1963) surrounding corruption charges. Hu, however, was seen as aligning more closely with Premier Li Keqiang and the Communist Youth League Faction than with Xi Jinping and his allies, thus reducing the chance of his ascension as a “successor-in-waiting.” Other names such as Chen Min’er 陈敏尔 (see his profile below) were floated as potential heir-apparents, though Xi ultimately chose to instead abolish presidential term limits, enabling him to rule indefinitely with no clear successor in sight.
Now, with Xi’s hold on power ever-tighter, the 20th Party Congress next year will give us new insight into Xi’s inner circle, as well as where China and the CCP will be heading in the years and even decades to come. Though the opaque nature of Chinese elite politics can make predicting the rise and fall of politicians difficult, a handful of officials in the sixth generation of leadership stand out as likely names to continue rising and take on more significant roles in carrying out General Secretary Xi’s agenda.
Chen Min’er 陈敏尔
Chen (born in 1960) is the Party Secretary of the Chongqing municipality. He is one of only three sixth generation officials on the 25-person Politburo, and the only one currently serving as a provincial-level Party Secretary. Chen is considered a member of Xi’s ‘New Zhijiang Army’ (之江新军), a collection of officials whose rise to power closely correlated with Xi’s time as the Zhejiang Party Secretary from 2002-2007, and who are now viewed as close loyalists and protégés. The announcement of Chen taking the leading job in Chongqing – a role previously held by current Standing Committee member and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Wang Yang 汪洋 and now-imprisoned Sun Zhengcai 孙政才 – was seen by experts as a “helicopter promotion”, bypassing typical norms as a means to fast-track a rising star. Though Chen failed to gain a role on the Standing Committee in 2017, his age keeps him well-positioned to make the jump in the coming years.
Hu Chunhua 胡春华
Hu is the only current sixth generation leader to have served on the Politburo since the 18th Party Congress in 2012. His experience as both a provincial Party Secretary (Guangdong 2012-2017) and Vice Premier makes him uniquely qualified among his sixth generation counterparts, though his links to the Communist Youth League and lack of direct ties to Xi could prove costly to his hopes of promotion. Nevertheless, Hu has been successful at avoiding Xi’s direct ire, and, while not likely destined for a top office, is likely to continue playing an important role in Chinese politics until at least the 20th Party Congress in 2022.
Ding Xuexiang 丁薛祥
Ding (born in 1962) is the current director of the powerful CCP General Office, a position previously held by Xi’s right-hand man and current Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu 栗战书. Despite never having held a major provincial leadership position, Ding gained Xi’s trust in 2007 during the latter’s brief stint as Shanghai Party Secretary which directly preceded his appointment as Vice President. Upon Xi’s ascension to General Secretary, Ding was named the Director of the President’s Office and is today still considered to be one of Xi’s top confidants. Already positioned on the Politburo, Ding is poised for further promotion, potentially even to the upper echelons of the Standing Committee.
Gong Zheng 龚正
Gong (born in 1960) has been the Mayor of Shanghai since last March. Gong began his career at the General Administration of Customs before being promoted to Vice Governor of Zhejiang Province in 2008. While Gong’s time in Zhejiang did not overlap with Xi’s, he did serve alongside several Xi protegees including Chen Min’er and current Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi 蔡奇. Gong’s recent promotion to a leading role as Shanghai Mayor – a seat held previously by political heavyweights such as former General Secretary Jiang Zemin 江泽民 and former Premier Zhu Rongji 朱镕基 – bodes well for his continuous rise in CCP leadership.
Zhang Qingwei 张庆伟
Zhang (born in 1961) has served as the Party Secretary of Heilongjiang 黑龙江 Province since 2017. Prior to his foray into politics, however, Zhang had a prominent career in China’s state-owned enterprises (SOE) sector, first as Chairman and Party Secretary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, followed by a stint as Chairman of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China until 2011. Zhang’s success as an executive even landed him a mention alongside Xi in 2009 as one of Wall Street Journal’s China’s 40 Most Powerful People. Having served as a full-member of the CCP Central Committee since 2002, Zhang, with his combination of both technical and governing experience, is well-poised to gain a seat on the Politburo next year.
Zhang Guoqing 张国庆
Zhang (born in 1964) has served as Party Secretary of Liaoning Province since September 2020, with previous stints as Mayor of both the Chongqing and Tianjin Municipalities. Zhang spent the early part of his career rising through the ranks of the China North Industries Group Corporation, one of China’s leading state-owned defense corporations. Zhang was named company chairman in 2008, a role he held until a transition into provincial party politics in 2013. Similar to Zhang Qingwei, Zhang Guoqing’s experience in both industry and government makes him a strong contender for a high leadership position at the 20th Party Congress and beyond.
Zhong Shaojun 钟绍军
Zhong (born in 1968) is unlikely to gain a prominent position such as a Politburo seat in the next Party Congress due to his junior age and rank, though he remains notable for his close ties to Xi. Considered as the youngest member of the “New Zhijiang Army,” Zhong has worked under Xi since the early 2000’s, and was named Director of Xi’s Office in 2012, before transitioning to his current position as Director of the Central Military Commission (CMC) General Office in 2017. Zhong now oversees day-to-day administrative military operations and has assisted Xi in fast-tracking policy ideas and reforms. Following the qi-shang ba-xia rule, Zhong would be eligible to serve through the 22nd Party Congress, potentially holding office until 2037.
Regardless of who successfully makes the leap to the Politburo or even its seven-man Standing Committee next fall, it can be assured that Xi’s grip on power will remain as firm as ever. With no foreseeable rivals or successors on the horizon, any and all rising hopefuls will need to show considerable subservience to Xi if they hope to move up the ranks. As such, it is becoming clear that loyalty to Xi has become the key to future success, eclipsing other qualifications including good governance and economic productivity.
Joe Bauer is a graduate student in China Studies and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. Joe previously completed a certificate in Chinese and American Studies at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China, and has a B.A. in Economics and Asian Studies from DePauw University.