The Rise of Xi Jinping’s Young Guards: Generational Change in the CCP Leadership
After firmly concentrating his political power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has begun promoting a new wave of generational change within the country’s leadership.
This shift began at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held in October 2022, and was confirmed at the latest session of the National People’s Congress in March 2023, completing a significant round of power redistribution throughout the Chinese party-state system. Many fresh faces have risen to national, provincial, and ministerial offices, several of whom are relatively young by the standards of Chinese elite politics. CCP cadres born during the 1970s are now gaining long-overdue opportunities to rise to the system’s higher echelons, while those born in the mid- to late 1960s have climbed to the top of the hierarchy, occupying positions in the Politburo and State Council and key provincial leadership slots.
Who are the rising stars emerging in the second decade of Xi’s reign? How young are they, exactly? What does their relative advantage in age mean? What are the salient characteristics of the winners in this round of intraparty power redistribution? And what does their rise mean for China’s elite politics?
This paper begins to address these questions by sketching a profile of these younger high-ranking cadres, with a focus on their roles in the composition of the new CCP Central Committee and the reshuffled provincial leadership lineup. It will first discuss the younger members of the national leadership, especially those who are part of the elite 24-member Politburo, which is the core of China’s party-state system, and analyze Xi’s strategic use of age considerations in personnel movements to strengthen his political power. The paper then will examine younger members of the Central Committee and younger leaders at the subnational level, with special attention to two prominent groups with backgrounds in finance and technology.
Rising Stars over Zhongnanhai: The Politics of Age Regarding Younger Members of the National Leadership
By the time of their inauguration, the CCP’s new top leaders anointed at the 20th Party Congress were older than those inaugurated 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The average age of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members selected in October 2022 was 65.1, compared with 62.9 in 2017, 63.1 in 2012, and 62.0 in 2002. This reflects a trend of postponing the promotion of younger cadres during Xi’s tenure. Upon taking office, Xi had a relatively weak power base and was confronted with a group of cadres who had been promoted under his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Many of these cadres occupied high-ranking positions despite their relative youth. Most notably, the two youngest members of the 18th Politburo (2012–2017), Sun Zhengcai (born September 1963) and Hu Chunhua (April 1963), joined the powerful decision-making body at only 49 years old. Xi’s fierce anticorruption campaign targeted many younger leaders, including Sun Zhengcai.
Xi used three tactics to manipulate age considerations to buy time to build his own power base in the CCP leadership. Two of these tactics were deployed to great effect around the 20th Party Congress. First, by relaxing the norm that Politburo members must retire if they are 68 or older in the year of a party congress (known as the “seven up, eight down” rule, or qi shang ba xia), Xi retained some of the loyal old guards in the new Politburo, such as General Zhang Youxia (72 in 2022) and veteran diplomat Wang Yi (69). Second, Xi sidelined younger leaders outside his factional network, exemplified by the forced exit of Hu Jintao’s protégée, Hu Chunhua, from the Politburo. Thus, the new leadership group is even older than the previous one.
Xi used a third tactic to a much greater extent during the latest round of leadership reorganization. During the past 10 years, Xi quietly postponed the promotion of many younger cadres, a choice that allowed him to block rising stars who had been promoted by previous leaders (and therefore did not owe him as much loyalty). The 20th Party Congress delivered a landmark victory for Xi in his efforts to sideline rival factions. Thereafter, he began to systematically promote younger cadres who had gained his trust, elevating them to the senior ranks of the power hierarchy, including the highest echelons of national and provincial leadership.
Ten members of the new Politburo, including one PSC member, were born in the 1960s, accounting for 41.7 percent of the 24 Politburo members (including seven PSC members). This group includes 8 of the 13 new members (61.5 percent) of the Politburo.
What are these new cadres’ relationships with Xi? The youngest PSC member is Ding Xuexiang (born September 1960), who is now China’s number-six leader and second in charge of the State Council; previously, he served as Xi’s chief of staff for many years. Other young Politburo members include Chen Wenqing (January 1960), former head of the secret police, who helped Xi purge enemies and collect foreign intelligence and is now in charge of China’s legal system; Chen Min’er (September 1960), a continuing Politburo member and new party chief of Tianjin, who served Xi in Zhejiang when Xi led the province; Liu Guozhong (July 1962), a new vice premier, who established a close relationship early in his career with Li Zhanshu, Xi’s former chief of staff and, before this promotion, was party chief of Shaanxi, Xi’s home province; Yin Li (August 1962), now party chief of Beijing and former party chief of Fujian Province, where Xi worked in the 1980s and the 1990s (Yin is also believed to have good relations with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan); Yuan Jiajun (September 1962), former party chief of Zhejiang Province and replacement for Chen Min’er as party secretary of Chongqing; Li Shulei (January 1964), the CCP propaganda director, who previously worked under Xi at the Central Party School; Chen Jining (February 1964), a former Beijing mayor and now party chief of Shanghai, who graduated from Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater; Zhang Guoqing (August 1964), also a new vice premier, in charge of industry, and the only leader on this list without clear ties to Xi earlier in his career; and Li Ganjie (November 1964), the youngest Politburo member and another Tsinghua graduate, who now takes the directorship of the Central Organization Department from Chen Xi, Li’s organizational patron and Xi’s roommate at Tsinghua in the 1970s (this role is important because the Organization Department oversees the politically crucial process of personnel selection).
At the National People’s Congress session in March, two more younger cadres joined the national leadership ranks as state councillors, a position that is just below that of vice premier and does not come with a Politburo seat. They are Wu Zhenglong (November 1964), a former deputy to Premier Li Qiang, who was Xi’s chief of staff in the early 2000s; and Qin Gang (March 1966), a former ambassador to the United States and the new foreign minister, who gained Xi’s trust by helping organize his busy diplomatic schedule as the foreign ministry’s protocol chief. Additionally, the Central Military Commission (CMC) has a new member who is relatively young, General Liu Zhenli (August 1964), chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
These leaders are hardly “young” in the normal sense, given that the youngest is 57 years old, and most are over 60. Indeed, compared with rising stars during the pre-Xi era, such as Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, they are relatively old.
Why, then, does Xi not promote much younger cadres to the Politburo? A persuasive explanation is that Xi does not want to empower any potential successors at such an early stage of what he likely envisages as a lifetime tenure. Furthermore, many of the current crop of newly promoted cadres are too old to serve more than one or two terms on the Politburo, meaning that Xi has greater power to control their future when the next leadership is reorganized. Lastly, a psychological factor may also be at play: Xi himself joined the Politburo at 59, and he may not like to see younger cadres have more dazzling careers than his own. With the sun fixed over Zhongnanhai, other stars cannot shine as brightly.
New Blood in the 20th Central Committee: Young Members and Alternate Members
Winners in China’s latest redistribution of political power include the 246 people who newly joined the CCP’s 376-person Central Committee at the 20th Party Congress, either as full members or nonvoting alternate members. Although the average age of the Central Committee is comparatively old, many of these new members stand out for their relative youth, implying they may have longer and more promising political careers ahead of them.
Indeed, the 20th Central Committee is among the oldest in recent history, a fact that highlights the political prospects of the body’s younger members. Among 205 full members, 24 were born in the late 1960s (1965–1969), making up 11.7 percent of this group. Only one of these 24 members was a full member of the 19th Central Committee, while six were alternate members, meaning that 17 are new. The four youngest Central Committee members are all new.
Yin Yong (born August 1969) is an experienced banker who was appointed mayor of Beijing immediately following the 20th Party Congress. In December 2016, Yin became a vice governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), a deputy-ministerial-level position, and a year later, he was transferred to the Beijing administration to gain experience in local governance, a strong sign of his rising political fortune. Yin is now the youngest ministerial-level leader in China.
He Junke (February 1969) is the first secretary of the Communist Youth League (CYL), a once-powerful organization that Xi has starved of influence. He spent the first part of his career in the aerospace industry, on which Xi has lavished significant political favor. Notably, He shares his ancestral province of Shaanxi with Xi. Having worked in the CYL for 17 years, he might soon be transferred to the provinces, perhaps as a governor.
Zhong Shaojun (October 1968) is Xi’s military secretary and, concurrently, director of the CMC General Office. Zhong has stayed by Xi’s side as a secretary since Xi was party chief of Zhejiang Province in the mid-2000s. Zhong is viewed as one of Xi’s closest subordinates.
Zhao Gang (June 1968) was a military-industrial engineer and manager for 25 years before becoming a local leader. He was appointed governor of Shaanxi after the 20th Party Congress. Zhao is the second-youngest governor in China, behind Yin.
Yin and Zhao joined the 20th Central Committee as full members when they were still only the third-ranked leaders in provincial-level governments (behind party secretaries and governors), but so did nine other officials. This suggests their impending promotion to full ministerial level, likely as a provincial governor or a state minister. These nine officials are Jin Xiangjun in Tianjin, Hu Yuting in Liaoning, Liu Wei in Jilin (who was transferred to Beijing after the 20th Party Congress but still as a number-three leader), Wang Zhijun in Heilongjiang, Huang Jianfa in Zhejiang, Cheng Lihua in Anhui, Lu Zhiyuan in Shandong, Meng Fanli in Guangdong, and Liu Xiaoming in Guangxi. Jin Xiangjun, Hu Yuting, and Liu Xiaoming have already been promoted to provincial governorships, and Huang Jianfa is now a ministerial-level deputy director of the CCP’s Central Organization Department. While these nine cadres are older than Yin and Zhao, they are relatively young compared with most incumbent ministerial-level cadres, and therefore they have better prospects of reaching the national leadership ranks before the required retirement age of 65.
Alternate members of the Central Committee share all the privileges of full members, but they are ineligible to participate in the body’s formal decision-making. The number of seats allocated to full and alternate members is not fixed; it is decided by the incumbent Politburo prior to each party congress. The 20th Central Committee includes 171 alternate members, 154 of whom (90.1 percent) were newly anointed at the 20th Party Congress (only 17 remain from the 19th Central Committee), an extraordinary degree of circulation. Of these 171 cadres, age information is unavailable for eight, but among the other 163, 141 (86.5 percent) were born after 1965. Thirty-six (22.1 percent) were born after 1970. Five years earlier, however, the corresponding group consisting of those born after 1965 (which is compared to today’s group of those who were born after 1970) had only 27 people, making up only 15.7 percent of 172 alternate members of the 19th Central Committee. In this respect, this Central Committee is comparatively young, despite including some truly elderly members.
None of those born in the 1970s, however, are full members of the 20th Central Committee. Alternate members are generally younger, but the youngest members of the 20th Central Committee seem to be members of diverse social groups more than rising political stars. Zhang Jing (born 1982) is the youngest committee member and the only one born in the 1980s; he was selected in his capacity as a team leader of a drilling crew at the Daqing Oilfield, as Daqing is an industrial model established during the Mao Zedong era. The next youngest alternate is Shi Jintong (1979), a village party secretary from Hunan Province who belongs to the Miao ethnic minority. Both Zhang and Shi hold their seats to “represent” the CCP’s vast grassroots organizations. The next two youngest alternates are also from ethnic minority backgrounds: Zuliati Simayi (September 1977), a female Uyghur director of the Xinjiang Education Department, and Hong Qing (November 1976), an ethnic Korean who is governor of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province. Their appointments reflect the old Maoist trick of political “decoration,” supposedly showing the party’s inclusion of ethnic peoples and its connection to the grassroots. Some of these cadres might have good career prospects, but they are not members of the Central Committee because they are about to win massive promotions.
Great expectations, however, may be placed on other alternates born since 1970. Excluding those “decorative” figures noted earlier, this list includes: Lu Dongliang (born December 1973), party secretary of Datong City and member of the Shanxi party standing committee; Yang Jinbai (April 1973), deputy mayor of Beijing and member of the Beijing party standing committee; Liu Hongjian (January 1973), party secretary of Kunming City and member of the Yunnan party standing committee; Purpu Tonchup (November 1972), party secretary of Lhasa City and member of the Tibet party standing committee; Wu Hao (February 1972), director of the Organization Department of the Jiangxi party standing committee; and Liu Jun (1972), president of the Bank of Communications.
These cadres hold positions of real responsibility, and they are among the youngest cadres at their level of the party-state hierarchy. Their career paths indicate great potential for further promotions in the years to come. Most have strong professional backgrounds, as exemplified by Lu and Yang, who worked for a long time in large state-owned industrial corporations. They have also frequently been transferred from post to post, often with cross-sector and cross-province assignments (for example, Lu and Yang jumped from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to local posts, and, for cross-province transfers, Liu moved from Fujian to Yunnan and Wu from Henan to Jiangxi). This implies that the CCP has intentionally given them opportunities to increase their profile and make them more competitive for higher positions. It is not difficult, therefore, to predict these cadres’ bright future: they will likely become state ministers, provincial party secretaries, or provincial governors in the next five years or so.
The Future Generation Has Emerged: High-Ranking Cadres Born in the 1970s
Alternates born in the 1970s are not necessarily the political front-runners of their generation. In fact, at the deputy-ministerial rank in the party-state system, a large crop of cadres in this age group have recently been promoted, many even younger than Lu and Yang. In the race for further promotions, some of them could surpass current Central Committee alternates of the same generation. The rise of the 1970s generation generally began before the 20th Party Congress, during the reshuffling of provincial leadership positions in late 2021 and early 2022.
From October 2021 to June 2022, all 31 provincial-level localities reorganized their CCP committees. A standing committee sits at the core of each CCP committee; it normally consists of one secretary, two deputy secretaries, nine ordinary members, and one military member. Exceptions are Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, and Hebei. There are four deputy secretaries in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the provincial standing committee has 10 ordinary members in Qinghai and Hebei. Among all 281 ordinary members appointed during this reshuffling, 68 were born in the 1970s, and 61 were born in 1968 or 1969. Together, these cadres make up 45.9 percent of all ordinary members.
Nationwide, four members of provincial party standing committees were born after 1975. They are Zhang Hongwen (born April 1975), an aerospace engineer and former CEO of a military-industrial corporation who is now a deputy governor of Anhui; Ilzat Exmetjan (June 1975), a Uyghur official with experience as an SOE manager who is now a local party cadre in Xinjiang; Zhang Xiaoqiang (November 1975), a former local cadre in Zhejiang who is now a provincial standing committee member in Guangdong; and Ren Wei (May 1976), who is an SOE leader turned deputy governor of Tibet. This group of leaders may not be promoted again quickly, but their long-term career expectations are promising if they can prove themselves against their peers. There is already speculation that Zhang Hongwen, Zhang Xiaoqiang, and Ren Wei could be elevated to top CCP leadership positions when Xi eventually starts to arrange his succession, perhaps in 10 years, by which time these cadres would be in their late fifties or early sixties.
Among cadres just a little older than this group, two are especially prominent as they are the only number-three leaders of provincial party committees born in the 1970s. They are Zhuge Yujie (born May 1971), a former number three in Shanghai who was recently transferred to the same position in Hubei, but seemingly with rising prospects to soon become governor; and Shi Guanghui (January 1970), also from Shanghai, the current number three in Guizhou Province, who 10 years ago became the first deputy-ministerial-level cadre born in the 1970s, although his career stagnated until the promotion to the current position in the last year. These leaders’ Shanghai background could be a liability, though, as they were close to Jiang Zemin’s acolytes there early in their careers, although their recent promotion to Central Committee alternates suggests they have already emerged from Jiang’s shadow.
The national reshuffling of provincial governors was completed in January 2023, and many cadres born in the 1970s were promoted to deputy governor positions. Excluding provincial standing committee members who are concurrently serving as deputy governors, there are 198 deputy governors, among which 77 (38.9 percent) were born in the 1970s. If we add the 42 deputy governors born in 1968 and 1969, this group represents 60.1 percent of the total. The youngest deputy governor is Gu Gang in Hainan, who was born in 1977. After him is Xie Yuan in Tianjin and Ren Qinghua in Anhui (a rare female leader at this level), both of whom were born in 1975.
This essay will not cover younger vice ministers in state ministries and similar party-state organizations. However, the next section presents a further analysis of deputy provincial governors to provide a deeper understanding of the future prospects of these younger cadres and what their promotion would mean for China’s governance.
Personnel for Future Governance: Two Prominent Groups to Watch
In recent years, Xi has paid special attention to two policy areas: finance and technology. Xi has awarded significant promotions to many cadres with professional backgrounds in these areas, installing them in leadership roles in provincial government. In most provinces, a deputy governor with a finance background has been appointed to lead financial governance, creating a group of “deputy provincial governors in charge of finance” (jinrong fushengzhang or “finance governors”). Lately, a similar group of “deputy provincial governors in charge of science and technology” (keji fushengzhang or “technology governors”) has also emerged. Because of Xi’s high demand for professionals from these areas, many newly appointed deputy governors are relatively young, with some among the youngest at their level. Following the 20th Party Congress, some were promoted to full ministerial rank, taking a leading position in the race toward national leadership roles.
The systematic appointment of finance governors started in 2018, at the beginning of Xi’s second term. The first cohort included the following leaders (in ascending age order): Liu Qiang (March 1971), who was promoted from the Bank of China (BOC) to the Shandong provincial government; Li Yunze (September 1970), from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to Sichuan; Guo Ningning (July 1970), the only woman on this list, from the China Development Bank to Fujian; Yin Yong (August 1969), from the PBoC to Beijing; Kang Yi (August 1966), from the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) to Tianjin; and Wu Qing (April 1965), from the Shanghai Stock Exchange to Shanghai. A second cohort followed in 2019, including Li Bo (July 1972), who worked for many years at the PBoC and was moved to Chongqing; Zhang Lilin (October 1971), from the China Construction Bank (CCB) to Liaoning; Ge Haijiao (December 1971), from Everbright Bank to Hebei; Huang Zhiqiang (June 1970), from CITIC Group to Inner Mongolia; Wu Wei (August 1969), from the Bank of Communications to Shanxi; Cai Dong (October 1968), from ABC to Jilin; and Tan Jiong (June 1966), from ICBC to Guizhou.
Later leadership reshuffles brought three changes. First, some of these cadres (such as Kang, Li Bo, and Tan) moved back to leadership positions in government agencies, mostly in the financial sector. Second, those who stayed in local government were all promoted to provincial party standing committees, a notch higher in the hierarchy of party-state governance. Moreover, most of these promoted cadres became the executive deputy governor, a post widely regarded as a half step away from becoming governor, a further promotion that rising star Yin Yong has already achieved.
Third, Beijing appointed more finance governors, replacing many who had been promoted and expanding the size of the group and its political influence. These new finance governors are among the youngest of their peers, as exemplified by Wang Hao (June 1971), who was promoted from the CCB to Yunnan; Xie Dong (February 1971), a female member of a satellite party, from a local financial regulator to a deputy mayor of Shanghai; Zhang Min (November 1970), another female cadre, from the CCB to Henan; and Chen Huaiyu (November 1970), from the BOC to Hainan. Most were promoted in January 2023, suggesting the continued rise of finance governors in Chinese politics.
The phenomenon of technology governors — deputy governors in charge of science and technology in a province — was consolidated in the latest round of leadership reorganization. In January 2023, at least 10 cadres with strong backgrounds in science or technology became provincial deputy governors, while more than 20 such leaders already occupied such positions.
These 30-odd people are relatively young, mostly born in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, with some even born in the mid-1970s. Zhang Hongwen, for example, is widely viewed as a rising political star. Born in April 1975, he was promoted to deputy governor of Anhui in September 2020 after serving as a deputy CEO of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, which designs, develops, and manufactures products including spacecraft, launch vehicles, and missile systems. He joined the Anhui party standing committee in November 2021, becoming one of the four youngest such members nationwide. As the 20th Party Congress promoted a significant number of military-industrial engineers to the Politburo, Zhang’s military-industrial background seems a boon for his political future.
Like financial governors, many of the first technology governors later won promotions to provincial party standing committees. Some also became executive deputy governors, such as Li Dianxun (born November 1967) in Hunan and Chen Mingbo (November 1968) in Chongqing. Some became directors of provincial organization departments, such as Zhang Wenbing (November 1971) in Hubei and Cheng Fubo (September 1970) in Guangdong. This would mirror Li Ganjie’s role as director of the Central Organization Department, which might signal more promotion of technocratic cadres to important CCP roles in the future.
The rise of technology governors also reflects Chen Xi’s influence in personnel arrangements. Chen was a member of the 19th Politburo who had served as director of the Central Organization Department since 2017. Chen retired from the Politburo because of his age, but it seems that he, as Xi’s college roommate and trusted ally, has wielded significant influence in post-congress promotions. Chen spent the first 25 years of his career in the Tsinghua University administration, serving as the institution’s deputy-ministerial-level party secretary for much of the 2000s before serving as vice minister of education, deputy party secretary of Liaoning, and then party secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology.
Many cadres with backgrounds in these areas have been promoted to serve as technology governors. They include at least seven former university party secretaries or presidents (number-two leaders to university party secretaries): Xiong Jijun (August 1971), from president of North University of China to Shanxi; Zhang Ling (April 1971), the only female in this list, from party secretary of Tianjin Normal University to Tianjin; Keyser Abdukerem (September 1970), former president of Xinjiang Medical University to the Xinjiang government; Shao Xinyu (November 1968), former party secretary of Huazhong University of Science and Technology to Hubei; Yang Bing (September 1967), from party secretary of Nankai University to Tianjin; Song Zhenghui (March 1966), former party secretary of Zhengzhou University to Henan; and Liang Renzhe (March 1965), from party secretary of Yanbian University to Jilin. In addition, at least eight technology governors appointed in January 2023 were previously leaders of a provincial education department, science and technology department, or association for science and technology. Previously, cadres in these roles had less hope of such promotions; now they have won big in the political power game.
Not all these officials are particularly young, but most are among the youngest of their peers. In Beijing, for example, apart from the Mayor Yin Yong, the finance technocrat who became the country’s governor-level official, two of his deputy mayors are young with a technology background: Xia Linmao (May 1970), who was promoted from party secretary of the local education commission, and Yu Yingjie (October 1973), who had a long career at the Chinese Academy of Sciences before becoming a technology governor, first in Shanxi and then in Beijing.
Age is a significant factor in CCP politics, and a younger generation has emerged at the national and provincial levels in the latest round of power redistributions following the 20th Party Congress. Whereas Xi spent the past decade sidelining younger cadres, his calculus appears to have changed after his decisive victories over rival factions, although he has retained some elder leaders at the top of the party hierarchy. This trend has changed the dynamics of the CCP’s personnel politics, and it will likely continue to have a significant impact on CCP elite politics and China’s governance in the years and decades to come.