Why Non-Elite Chinese Officials Are Being Picked for Top Offices

June 6, 2017 Updated: June 15, 2017

Cai Qi spent 14 years in several modest official positions in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. Finally, in 2013, he became a deputy to the province’s No. 2 official.

In the past four years, however, Cai has enjoyed a major career progression somewhat akin to an employee in middle management of a multinational company suddenly being made CEO—with an additional offer to join the board of directors.

Cai, 60, was first plucked from Zhejiang to be deputy director of the Chinese regime’s national security organ in 2014. Then Cai was made acting and full Beijing mayor, and later landed the top job in Beijing—Communist Party secretary of Beijing—in a span of six months in 2016 and 2017.

As Beijing boss, Cai also seems locked in for a seat in the Politburo—the elite, 25-member decision-making body—come the 19th National Congress, a key Party conclave, near the end of the year.

The Xi Jinping leadership’s recent appointment of Cai and over a dozen others to senior provincial positions has turned heads because the appointees are technically non-elites—none of the newly promoted officials are in the Central Committee, a collection of over 300 ministerial-level officials.

Xi has likely chosen to elevate Cai Qi and other former work colleagues, as well as academics or technocrats, to more fully consolidate his control over the Chinese regime.

Xi has likely chosen to elevate Cai and others, who are either Xi’s former work colleagues, academics, or technocrats, in order to more fully consolidate his control over the Chinese regime.

Political Deathmatch

On paper, General Secretary Xi Jinping already appears to be very powerful, being “core” leader of the Chinese regime, top overseer of the military, and head of several key policymaking groups.


But in reality, Xi is less influential than his many titles suggest.

Even before taking office in 2012, Xi was forced to contend with a powerful political faction helmed by former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s faction had been dominant for about two decades, and is responsible for perpetuating corruption, kleptocracy, and persecution in China.

Jiang faction elites had originally planned to dispose of Xi, a compromise candidate between Jiang and then outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao, in a coup, according to sources inside the Party and an account given by an Obama administration official to Washington Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz. Xi himself appeared to allude to the attempted coup in official speeches, when he accused disgraced Jiang elites of forming “cliques and cabals” to “wreck and split” the Party.

Over the past five years, Xi has sought to shift the balance of power through an anti-corruption campaign, which has led to the downfall of many Jiang allies and supporters in various governing organs and the military. More than 1 million officials have been investigated for corruption since 2013, of which more than 200 are Party elites, according to Chinese state media.

Chinese officials, possibly unhappy with no longer being able to make an easy fortune through corruption, have recently been found to be passively resisting the Xi leadership by refusing or poorly carrying out orders from Party central, according to Chinese scholars. The Party’s anti-corruption agency has also made indirect allusions to this resistance in its reports.

The result of the “death match” between the Xi leadership and Jiang’s faction is stagnation in the Chinese regime; in the past five years, Xi has been unable to push through substantial economic, legal, or security reforms.

Reshuffling the Provinces

In light of the current political situation in the Chinese regime, the Xi Jinping leadership’s recent elevation of Beijing boss Cai Qi and several other officials to top provincial positions, despite their non-elite status, seems to be born out of dire necessity rather than a willful attempt to break with the regime’s convention.


If Xi were to promote officials from among the current pool of Central Committee members, or within many important provincial-level administrations like Beijing, Chongqing, or Xinjiang, he runs the risk of entrenching the Chinese “deep state” that comprises lines of officials whose political patronage can be traced to Jiang’s faction.

Xi is unlikely to want to go another five years being unable to properly push through his policies. Stacking the No. 1 and No. 2 offices in key provinces with loyalists or capable academics and technocrats with no political alignment is one way to break the impasse.

Xi’s efforts at political reshuffling are best seen in Beijing.

Beijing Party chief Cai worked with Xi in the southern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. New acting mayor Chen Jining was president of the prestigious Tsinghua University until 2015 before serving as minister of environmental protection. Two new Beijing municipal Party committee members as well as the political advisory organ chief and the legislature chief were all brought in from outside Beijing.

Xi has either replicated or appears to be in the process of effecting similar political appointments in the other key provincial-level administrations, such as Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Xinjiang, and Shanghai, long the base of operations of Jiang Zemin.