Aerospace Engineers to Communist Party Leaders: The Rise of Military-Industrial Technocrats at China’s 20th Party Congress
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) closed its 20th Party Congress in October 2022, 13 new members joined the 24-member Politburo, the party’s top leadership body. Five of these rising stars share notable similarities, including an educational background in military-industrial engineering, professional experience in China’s military-industrial sector, and a career transformation from engineer-managers to local (and now national) political leaders. A shared military-industrial background makes this group of leaders distinct and significant in the new Politburo, accounting for almost 40 percent of the new members. Moreover, their relatively young age compared with most of the top CCP leaders is noteworthy. With an average age of 59.6 at the 20th Party Congress — five years younger than the average age of all other Politburo members (64.5) — they represent a new generation within the CCP leadership. In fact, the youngest member of the 20th Politburo (aged 57) belongs to this group. All these factors make this group of rising stars — who we will call the “Military-Industrial Five,” or simply “The Five” — worth analyzing in detail.
Who are these new, younger leaders? What is China’s military-industrial sector, and how are The Five connected to it? What factors allowed them to rise to China’s national leadership body? And what does the presence of such a large share of leaders with military-industrial backgrounds in the Politburo imply for China’s future during Xi Jinping’s third term, and beyond? This paper aims to answer these questions.1
The Rise of the Military-Industrial Technocrats in 2022: Who Are They?
On September 1, 2020, two members of The Five caught the attention of China’s mass media when they gained new appointments as provincial party secretaries, a post that in the Chinese party-state power hierarchy is regarded as just below a seat in the Politburo. The others would soon emerge into view as well.
Zhang Guoqing, who secured a new post in Liaoning Province in northeastern China, drew notice as he became the youngest of the 31 provincial party secretaries nationwide. At the age of 56, Zhang was a veteran cadre who previously had been the mayor of two major cities, Chongqing and Tianjin — experience rarely matched by Chinese politicians of his generation. The spotlight on Zhang, however, focused on his earlier career as an engineer and corporate executive, during which time he joined the CCP Central Committee (at age 43) in his capacity as CEO of the China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (known internationally as the Norinco Group), a Chinese state-owned corporation that manufactures military weapons. Zhang had worked at the firm for more than 25 years, during which time he spent nearly a decade advancing China’s cooperation on arms manufacturing and trade with the Middle East, especially Iran. He then lived in Tehran between 1989 and 1993, a time when China was under Western economic and technological sanctions following the Tiananmen crackdown.
Yuan Jiajun is another new appointee who has a similar background, emerging from China’s military-industrial sector before entering politics. Appointed party secretary of Zhejiang Province — one of the richest provinces in China, and the place where party chief Xi Jinping had once worked as provincial party secretary — his earlier career is equally notable as Zhang’s. Yuan was trained as an aerospace engineer, and at age 40, he became commander in chief of China’s spaceflight project, earning the nickname “young marshal of military industry” in Chinese mass media. Under Yuan’s leadership, China launched a series of key spacecraft missions (designated Shenzhou 2 to Shenzhou 5, among which Shenzhou 5 was the first Chinese crewed spaceflight mission). Two years older than Zhang, Yuan joined the CCP 17th Central Committee as an alternate member (the same as Zhang), then changed his career track to add local government experience to his résumé.
Within a year, however, two former colleagues of Zhang and Yuan soon overshadowed both of them.
Li Ganjie, appointed party secretary of Shandong Province, replaced Zhang as the youngest provincial leader in China. Born in November 1964, Li’s career track has been similar to Zhang’s: He is a nuclear engineer who started a professional and administrative career in China’s nuclear industry before being dispatched to Paris for some time. He then turned to government work, becoming a provincial leader through quick job transfers among multiple localities.
Ma Xingrui was appointed party chief of Xinjiang, China’s northwestern autonomous region, which has become infamous in recent years for allegations that an ethnic genocide of the region’s Muslim minority is taking place there. Ma worked on aerospace technology for many years at the same research institute as Yuan. They continued to work together for five years as CEO and deputy CEO of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s top state-owned corporation in the aerospace sector, before parting ways to join different provincial leadership groups. Ma’s transfer from a post as provincial governor of Guangdong to become party chief of Xinjiang gave him an opportunity to join the 20th Politburo in 2022 along with the other members of The Five.
Liu Guozhong is the last member of this group. Liu also obtained undergraduate education in military engineering, specializing in artillery, and rose to the Politburo from the position of provincial party secretary of Shaanxi (not coincidentally, Xi Jinping’s home province). Liu is not a typical military-industrial figure, however, as he worked in the sector for only a short time and never rose to a leadership position in any major military-industrial corporation, instead beginning his career in local politics at age 28.
Below these five leaders are several others with military-industrial backgrounds who have taken on new provincial leadership positions or joined the ranks of the 20th Central Committee in other capacities.
Prominent figures among provincial leaders include Zhang Qingwei, a veteran provincial party secretary who now leads Hunan Province; Hao Peng, who succeeded Zhang Guoqing as party secretary of Liaoning; Huang Qiang, now governor of Sichuan Province; and Zhao Gang, governor of Shaanxi Province. The first three leaders are all aerospace engineers by training and worked as engineer-managers in that sector before turning to local politics. Zhang was once the superior of both Ma Xingrui and Yuan Jiajun during their shared time at CASC, but he now lags behind them in his political career. As the second-youngest provincial governor nationwide, Zhao has significant experience in the Norinco Group.
In the national government, a number of ministers also have significant early experience in China’s military-industrial sector, including Huai Jinpeng, now minister of education, in the aerospace sector; Jin Zhuanglong, minister of industry and information technology, at CASC; Tang Dengjie, minister of civil affairs, as former CEO of the China Ordnance Equipment Group Corporation; and Lei Fanpei, also an aerospace engineer, who is now the ministerial-level executive deputy director of the Office for the Central Commission on Military-Civilian Integration, which Xi Jinping chairs. All four ministers are now full members of the 20th Central Committee.
The list of deputy-minister-level cadres with military-industrial backgrounds is even longer; many are now alternate members of the Central Committee (representing a layer of the Chinese party-state power hierarchy comprising those who are likely to rise to provincial, ministerial, and even national positions). What is notable is that the provincial party leadership reshuffling of 2021–2022 brought this next generation of military-industrial technocrats (born in the 1970s) into high-ranking party-state positions. Because of their young age, some of them are thought to have the potential to ascend to the top leadership in the aftermath of a post-Xi power transition in the future.
Zhang Hongwen is one member of this group. Born in 1975, Zhang joined the local CCP Standing Committee of Anhui Province in October 2021, becoming one of the youngest cadres at that ranking. His career track has been very similar to that of Yuan Jiajun, but he advanced via another state-owned corporation in the space sector, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, where he rose from engineer to deputy CEO in only 23 years before turning to a career in local politics.
The Rise of the “Red and Expert” Cadres in China’s Military-Industrial Complex
Evidenced by The Five’s inclusion in the 20th Politburo, the rise of these military-industrial engineers and managers in Chinese politics has been phenomenal. The Chinese public often uses the term “military-industrial gang” or “military-industrial group” to highlight their common or similar backgrounds and experiences in the military-industrial complex. This raises two questions: What is China’s military-industrial complex? And how has this complex facilitated such rising stars within the CCP leadership?
China’s military-industrial sector is a gigantic system that is entirely owned by the party-state. This system is designed to combine the technological, industrial, managerial, and political-economic strengths of Chinese party-state institutions to promote technological advancements, especially breakthroughs in military-related technologies and manufacturing capabilities. Aspiring to be a global superpower, China places significant emphasis on national autonomy in key technologies and critical industries. The state invests a huge amount of resources — talent and funds — in this system, which encompasses the nuclear, aerospace, aviation, shipbuilding, ordnance, military electric, and military auxiliary product sectors, among much else. It comprises the party-state administrative system, state-owned enterprises, relevant state-owned nonprofit units, and pertinent universities, schools, and research institutes.
China’s military-industrial system was envisioned as an integral part of the party-state from the very beginning. During the Mao era, as many as eight ministries of “machinery industries” were organized within the national government, each owning and governing a specific sector of the military industry (except the First Ministry of Machinery Industry, which owned and managed civilian-centered enterprises). This system allowed China to successfully build its nuclear bombs, develop its missile capacity, and supply its army — the largest in the world — with weapons without relying on imports. Each ministry was structured like a large corporation, overseeing factories (enterprises), research and development organizations, and educational institutions. But in Mao’s China, these organizations had virtually no market access. The factories under the ministries were given numerical code names to maintain military secrecy, and many were located in remote mountainous regions in southwestern China — the “third line” regions in military jargon.
After Mao, as China introduced market mechanisms into its economy, reorganizing the industries that previously had fallen under the military-industrial umbrella became a key item on this agenda. In 1982, the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (CSTIND) was set up to administer military-industrial system reform. The CSTIND was often referred to as the Chinese counterpart to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the U.S. military. DARPA, however, exists under the U.S. Department of Defense; by contrast, the CSTIND was established parallel to China’s Ministry of Defense, but it was responsible to the State Council and the Central Military Commission. Meanwhile, the previous machine-industry ministries were reorganized as corporations. This transformation ended in roughly 2008, when the CSTIND was disbanded. Instead, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense were set up as state administrative agencies of the military industries.
With the system transformed, a series of massive corporations began operating China’s military-industrial sector. The 10 largest corporations are: the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation; the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation; the Aviation Industry Corporation of China; the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation; the China State Shipbuilding Corporation; the China North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco); the China South Industries Group (also known as the China Ordnance Equipment Group Corporation); the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation; the China National Nuclear Corporation; and the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Group Corporation.
At the turn of the 21st century, transfers of leading engineer-managers from military-industrial corporations to local governance began to increase. The last two ministers of the CSTIND, Zhang Yunchuan and Zhang Qingwei, as well as a deputy minister, Chen Qiufa, all became provincial party secretaries. Other cadres who later would enter the higher ranks of the party-state hierarchy were also assigned to new posts outside the system at this time. Because so many leading cadres from these state-owned military-industrial enterprises joined the national and subnational levels of leadership, they are often divided into subgroups, such as the “aerospace gang,” the “Norinco gang,” and so on, based on their career origins. It seems that in the late 1990s and thereafter, the CCP Central Organization Department found a rich pool of talent in the military-industrial system and moved to direct it into party leadership. This trend has since accelerated, reaching a high tide under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
The rapid rise of these military-industrial engineers in Chinese politics is spectacular, even in comparison with the general trend of a rising class of technocrats in the post-Mao era. In fact, earlier generations of CCP technocrats who rose in the 1980s and the 1990s were much less qualified as engineers compared with those in today’s military-industrial group. Despite their formal professional training in engineering, both the Jiang Zemin/Li Peng generation and the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao generation spent huge portions of their lives involved in Mao’s political campaigns. When they took up positions of political leadership, they were already party bureaucrats with outdated knowledge and skills in their original professions. For many of these bureaucrats, some of whom obtained so-called “fake” degrees during their time in high-ranking posts, “technocrat” is a rather misleading label.2
In this context, the rise of the “military-industrial gang” becomes clearer. They are not only genuine engineers by training, but also highly accomplished engineers in professional practice. In comparison with those who graduated from the Central Party School with a doctoral degree in the study of Marxism-Leninism, their qualification in terms of expertise is beyond argument. Even the CCP Central Organization Department, which certainly encourages the study of Marxism and recognizes (and even values) a Party School diploma, must find capable technocrats with real skills somewhere. The academic threshold to join the Party School as a student of Marxism is low; admittance to elite educational institutions to study aerospace engineering is another matter. CCP cadres can easily gain the opportunity for ideological education based merely on their personal network and political position within the regime; prospective aerospace engineering students, however, must rely on their own intelligence and record. Students of the latter kind, therefore, are among the most competitive in China’s meritocratic educational system. Moreover, having joined the military-industrial sector after graduation, they are pushed to maintain and improve their professional knowledge and skills over time, in comparison with Party School graduates, who, upon taking government posts early on, seemingly face no such pressures.
Opportunities to develop genuine managerial skills also play a role. Military-industrial engineers turned CCP politicians are not pure engineers; they are engineer-managers who excelled in their corporations for years. These military-industrial corporations are truly enormous. In 2021, eight of the 10 largest Chinese military-industrial enterprises were listed among the largest 500 firms in the world by Fortune magazine, ranking between numbers 127 and 371. The two enterprises that were not on Fortune’s 2021 list were nearly as large, with one listed as the 243rd largest corporation worldwide in 2019. The leaders of such corporations are assumed to be extremely capable in their management expertise, possessing the experience and skills that are sought out by the central leadership to contribute to China’s governance capacity.
Of course, political loyalty to the CCP, not skill, is the most important characteristic for cadres who hope to be recruited or promoted. The military-industrial engineer-managers nevertheless have advantages in this regard. It is a CCP tradition, since at least the Yan’an period in the 1940s, for the party’s elder leaders to send their children to study engineering, mostly in the Soviet Union. This trend was exemplified by Li Peng, premier during the late 1980s and early 1990s (and well known as the butcher of Tiananmen Square), who also is a stepson of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. In the 1950s, the CCP opened its own equivalent of MIT or Caltech, the Ha’erbin Institute of Military Engineering (often abbreviated Ha Jungong), and appointed a top-ranking general in the People’s Liberation Army, Chen Geng, as its president. Those who were later labeled “red princelings” flocked to the school, as its reputation at the time exceeded that of Tsinghua University, the leading university among the Chinese ivy league, established with financial compensation from Western powers, including the United States. The engineering careers of these graduates, however, were significantly limited or even destroyed by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When they eventually found opportunities in politics, most already became average party-state bureaucrats lacking advanced scientific knowledge or technological skills.
This engineering education tradition continued into the post-Mao era. As always, students who are admitted to the military engineering and industrial schools have their political backgrounds carefully investigated before admittance. Thus, the regime has a high degree of trust in them, even though, in recent decades, these students are no longer from revolutionary families but primarily from other social classes.
Graduates who land a place in the state-owned military-industrial sector must pass a more intensive background investigation, and their political attitudes are reexamined and double checked. Some might already be CCP members, having joined during their undergraduate years. (This is not easy in China, as the CCP is very cautious about recruiting undergraduates, for reasons that are not clear.) In fact, many of the leaders mentioned earlier, including some of The Five, became CCP members as students: Zhang Guoqing and Li Ganjie joined the CCP as third-year undergraduates, while Jin Zhuanglong did so as a second-year undergraduate. In this regard, they started their political careers early compared with most cadres, many of them in their early twenties.
These military-industrial engineer-managers are especially qualified to meet the CCP’s criteria for cadre promotions: namely, in Mao’s words, they are both “red and expert,” or, in post-Mao CCP jargon, they are both revolutionary and specialist. These leaders are regarded as both loyal to the CCP and capable of practically advancing the party’s causes. Therefore, they rise quickly in the leadership ranks.
The Rise of the Military-Industrial Complex: A Model for the Future of Xi Jinping’s China
The unprecedented rise of military-industrial technocrats at the 20th Party Congress must be further attributed to the sharp turn that China has taken under Xi Jinping. China’s military-industrial system as a special type of institutional arrangement reflects Xi’s preferred governance model. He favors military-industrial engineer-managers precisely because he expects them to incorporate their experiences into the wider spheres of China’s governance. The following is a brief discussion of the implications of this model from three angles: China’s economic development, technological progress, and foreign relations.
A prominent theme of Xi’s governance — evident over the last decade and in his policy platform announced at the 20th Party Congress — is to tame, harness, and control market forces so that they serve the CCP’s utmost interest: to retain its monopoly on public power in China. The CCP has consistently held this ambition since it introduced the market mechanism into China’s economy in the late 1970s. But, in Xi’s judgment, while the mechanism has promoted the country’s remarkable economic growth, it also poses the risk of undermining the CCP’s political autocracy. China’s military-industrial sector, in contrast, appears to be an area in which party-state control and market activities have been successfully combined. The 10 military-industrial corporations are among the biggest firms in the global market, while, at the same time, being key assets of the CCP party-state. Therefore, it is unsurprising that, among The Five, Zhang Guoqing and Liu Guozhong are expected to join the next State Council leadership, overseeing the industrial economy and rural development, respectively, while Ma Xingrui in Xinjiang has been conducting experiments in economic revitalization alongside continuous, harsh political repression; Yuan Jiajun, meanwhile, has already taken up the position of party secretary of Chongqing, China’s largest metropolis and home to significant heavy industry. It seems clear that Xi expects these leaders to apply their military-industrial experience to the reshaping of the Chinese economy in a way that champions both a stronger statist framework and corporate market-economic success.
In his report to the CCP’s 20th National Congress, Xi Jinping admitted that one of the major problems confronting China’s development is that “China's capacity for scientific and technological innovation is not yet strong enough.” He envisioned that by 2035, China would rely on the advancement of scientific and technological innovation to achieve his broader economic and strategic goals. Therefore, he devoted a special section to the theme of invigorating China through science and technology and elaborated at length on measures such as “accelerating the implementation of the innovation-driven development strategy” and “promoting the integrated and clustered development of strategic emerging industries and cultivating new growth engines such as next-generation information technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, new energy, new materials, high-end equipment, and green industry.” Reading these statements with Xi’s first 10 years in power in mind, it becomes clear that Xi has high hopes of integrating technological innovation and market elements, primarily to advance China’s economic and military power and thereby, in Xi’s words, make China central on the world stage.
The military-industrial sector is crucial to this effort, not only because of its technological contributions, but also its application of the institutional elements it has nurtured to the “whole-country system in the new style” that is meant to drive technological advancements. The “whole-country system” refers to an institutional arrangement that can mobilize and concentrate the entire country’s relevant resources to make significant scientific and technological breakthroughs. During the Mao era, when China was economically and technologically backward, this system made it possible for China to develop its own nuclear bombs and launch space satellites. The CCP in general — and Xi in particular — believes that the Maoist method of technological development can make their technological goals a reality. Those in the military-industrial gang are thought to be good party cadres who have supported and will continue to support the party’s and the leader’s focus on achieving technological miracles.
These up-and-coming leaders are not totally blind in their beliefs, however. In fact, the “new style” of the whole-country system refers to the market elements and, as a result, global connections that China’s military industries and the state sector more broadly must pursue to accomplish the CCP’s goals for scientific and technological breakthroughs. For CCP leaders, national self-reliance and getting what China needs from foreign countries are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The bottom line is, who retains control? As long as the CCP party-state is in control, foreign resources can be absorbed into the whole-country system for resource mobilization and concentration. This reality, and the general rise of military-industrial technocrats in Chinese politics, poses significant implications for China’s foreign relations, especially amid the escalating technological competition between the United States and China.
China’s military-industrial sector is a totally state-owned, state-managed, and state-led sector. While the engineer-managers within the sector are well equipped with advanced education, sound scientific knowledge, and rich corporate experience, they are, first and foremost, CCP cadres. The rise of these military-industrial leaders to the CCP’s national decision-making bodies is critical in observing and analyzing China’s next five years. As a preliminary analysis, this paper highlights the statist consonance between these leaders’ experience in practicing the “whole-country model in the new style” of China’s military-industrial sector and the wider blueprint for China’s future that Xi Jinping delivered at the 20th Party Congress. In short, with the military-industrial gang’s rise to national, ministerial, and provincial leadership positions, especially in economic and technological policymaking positions, we can foresee the implementation of the “whole-country system” on a wider scale. This will likely include the acceleration of “military-civil fusion” system-wide, as well as the expansion of the military-industrial complex in overall size and power. With Li Ganjie, the youngest member of The Five and the 20th Politburo, very likely set to take over the CCP Central Organization Department, it would not be surprising to see a nationwide wave of promotions of similarly situated younger military-industrial cadres to higher positions. The current positioning of military-industrial technocrats within CCP politics suggests that their rise will continue for at least the next five years — with a transformative impact on Chinese elite politics and beyond.
1 The author would like to thank Jing Qian, managing director of the Center for China Analysis, for his thoughtful feedback on early drafts of this paper. He also greatly appreciates the editorial help provided by Nathan Levine and Johanna Costigan.
2 “Fake degrees” here refers to academic graduate degrees sometimes obtained by CCP cadres from China’s universities without regularly attending classes or writing a degree thesis on their own (usually leaving this to their secretaries or research staff). This trend is exemplified by Xi Jinping’s doctoral degree from Tsinghua University, which he was awarded while he was a provincial leader in Fujian Province. Cadres have an incentive to acquire degrees by such means because an advance degree is a big asset for their promotion, given the post-Mao CCP regime’s emphasis on the importance of educational backgrounds.