China’s Most Powerful “Princelings”: How Many Will Enter the New Politburo?

Cheng Li

High on the list of conceivable outcomes of the 17th Party Congress that will cause strong social resentment in China is the possibility that the newly established Politburo will be filled with many “princelings,” leaders who come from families of former high-ranking officials. In the eyes of the Chinese public, market reforms in the past three decades have not only brought about rapid economic growth, but have also led to the rise of enormous economic disparities. It has been widely noted that large numbers of Communist Party leaders have taken advantage of their political power to convert the assets of the state into their own private wealth. The presence of a large number of princelings in the new Politburo would likely reinforce public perceptions of the convergence of power and wealth in the country.

Family ties and nepotism in elite recruitment are certainly not unique to China, and they are at times instrumental in the political career advancements of leaders in democratic countries. Yet, general elections in democracies tend to confer legitimacy on politicians even if they hail from a politically powerful family or were born with a “silver spoon” in their mouth. In an authoritarian regime such as China where leaders are selected rather than elected, however, the top officials who come from privileged family backgrounds are generally suspected of having reached their high positions primarily because of political nepotism. At a time when Hu Jintao presents himself as a populist leader whose administration places a top priority on increasing social fairness and equality, the presence of a large contingent of princelings in the next Politburo would be seen as a great irony, thus significantly undermining Hu’s populist claims.

Leading Princelings for Seats on the 17th Politburo

To a greater extent at this upcoming Congress than at any previous Congress in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), princelings are poised to assume more seats in the Politburo, including its Standing Committee. In the 24-member 15th Politburo, which was formed in 1997, four members were princelings—Party General-Secretary Jiang Zemin, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Li Peng, Vice Chairman of the NPC Li Tieying, and Director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Zeng Qinghong—whose fathers were former leaders at the vice ministerial level or above. Jiang Zemin and Li Peng both came from families of Communist martyrs; their deceased fathers’ comrades-in-arms were undoubtedly helpful to their political careers. In the 25-member 16th Politburo selected in 2002, three members were princelings: Party Secretary of Hubei Yu Zhengsheng and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang, as well as Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a holdover from the 15th Politburo.

Table 1 lists fifteen leading candidates for the next Politburo who come from princeling backgrounds. All but one of these individuals currently serve on the 16th Central Committee, including one Politburo Standing Committee member, two Politburo members, nine full members, and two alternate members. The one exception is Lou Jiwei, Deputy Secretary-General of the State Council, who serves as a member of the 16th Central Discipline Inspection Commission. Their previous leadership experiences, current positions, relatively young ages (in most cases) and political favoritism make them leading contenders for seats on the next Politburo.

At present, it is not clear whether Zeng, Yu and Zhou will manage to keep their seats on the 17th Politburo. The most likely scenario is that Zeng will voluntarily retire, but Yu and Zhou will retain their seats, perhaps even advancing to become members of the Standing Committee. Moreover, several rising stars with princeling backgrounds in the so-called fifth generation of Chinese leaders will almost certainly obtain seats in the next Politburo, and some may even become members of the Politburo Standing Committee. The princelings with the best chances of making this leap include Liu Yandong (Director of the United Front Work Department of the CCP), Li Yuanchao (Party Secretary of Jiangsu) and Xi Jinping (Party Secretary of Shanghai).

In addition, Dai Bingguo (Party Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Wang Qishan (Mayor of Beijing), and Ma Kai (Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission) are likely to assume positions as vice premiers or state councilors in March 2008 when the NPC convenes to appoint new state leaders. If the current top leadership plans to make these appointments, then these officials will first be promoted within the Party, making them likely candidates to serve on the Politburo of the 17th Central Committee. Six other princelings from the list above, including Bo Xilai (Minister of Commerce), Zhou Xiaochuan (Governor of the People’s Bank of China), Zhang Qingli (Party Secretary of Tibet), Li Jianguo (Party Secretary of Shandong), Chen Yuan (Governor of the China Development Bank), and Lou Jiwei (mentioned above), may be slightly weaker candidates compared to the aforementioned princelings, though one or two of them may turn out to be dark horse candidates who are given seats on the next Politburo.

Based on this analysis, the next Politburo will likely consist of eight or nine princelings, a record-breaking figure for this distinct elite group in China’s top leadership. If so, the number of princelings on this powerful decision-making body will have increased about two-fold compared with the previous Congress. Princelings would therefore account for one-third of the next Politburo, assuming that the total number of people sitting on this leadership organ remains roughly the same.

Collective Identity and Short-Cut Career Paths

In China, children of high-ranking officials are usually called taizidang (the party of princes). The English translation can be misleading, however, because those who are princelings are not necessarily part of a monolithic organization or a formal network and do not have strong patron-client ties among themselves. In addition, the political interests of the princelings are not always identical, and there is often infighting over power and wealth. As an elite group, princelings are far less cohesive than any of the other political networks that were once dominant or are still powerful in the Chinese leadership, such as the “field army association,” the “Qinghua clique,” “the Shanghai gang,” and the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) faction (known as tuanpai) [1]. In fact, a few of the rising stars with princeling backgrounds, for example, Liu Yandong, Li Yuanchao and Zhang Qingli, are most closely associated with the tuanpai. Princelings also differ significantly among themselves in terms of leadership skills, educational backgrounds, and personalities.

Princelings, however, share a strong political identity. With no exception, all prominent leaders with princeling backgrounds greatly benefited from their family ties early in their careers. They were “born red”—a large number of them were born during the late 1940s and 1950s as their parents’ generation won civil war victories and became the new rulers of the Communist regime. They usually received the best education available; for example, Ma Kai, Bo Xilai, and Chen Yuan all attended Beijing Number Four Boys High School, one of the best high schools in the country. The formal education of those younger princelings was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping, Li Yuanchao, Wang Qishan, and Zhou Xiaochuan, for instance, were sent to the countryside where they worked as farmers for a number of years. Yet, largely due to their family ties, all four of these princelings returned to college in the early 1970s.

A review of the career paths of these most prominent princelings in present-day China also reveals three shared traits. First, many of them served as mishu (personal secretaries) to senior leaders who are their fathers’ old comrades-in-arms. For example, Zeng Qinghong served as mishu to Yu Qiuli (then chairman of the State Planning Commission), Xi Jinping served as mishu to Geng Biao (then minister of defense), Lou Jiwei served as mishu to Zhu Rongji ( then mayor of Shanghai), and Li Jianguo served as mishu to Li Ruihuan (then party secretary of Tianjin). Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai worked as clerks in the general office of the Secretariat of the CCP Central Committee early in their careers. These experiences as mishu not only provided valuable opportunities for princelings to be familiar with the work and decision-making process at the national and provincial levels of leadership, but also accelerated their political careers.

Second, princelings often received shortcuts for their career advancement. For example, Yu Zhengsheng, Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai all previously served as either mayor or Party secretary of Qingdao, Fuzhou, and Dalian, respectively, cities whose economic planning is under the direct supervision of the State Council. Such appointments to top municipal leadership positions were catalysts for additional promotions, given that these coastal cities with special economic zone status witnessed high economic growth rates and had the potential for even greater growth. Municipal leaders, therefore, could receive credit for economic achievements in these rich coastal cities much more easily than those leaders who worked in other cities. Furthermore, the top municipal leaders in the coastal cities automatically receive the administrative rank of vice provincial governor or deputy provincial Party secretary.

Third, a majority of these princelings, especially the younger ones in their 50s, have had substantial leadership experiences in economic administration, finance, foreign investment, and foreign trade. Wang Qishan, Ma Kai, Bo Xilai, Zhou Xiaochuan, Chen Yuan, and Lou Jiwei are among the most experienced economic leaders in China today. Li Yuanchao and Xi Jinping have had considerable leadership experience in running China’s most market-oriented provinces. Economic expertise and administrative credentials are among the most important political assets as these princelings now compete for the top leadership with their same-age cohorts who usually lack such experience.

Princelings: Poor Records in Elections and Extraordinary Figures


Princelings’ privileged life experiences and “helicopter-style” career advancements have often received growing criticism and opposition, not only from the Chinese society, but also from the deputies of both the Party Congress and the NPC. The strongest evidence of opposition to nepotism in the selection of Central Committee (CC) members is that many candidates on the ballot for the CC were not elected despite (or perhaps because of) their high-ranking family backgrounds. Bo Xilai, Xi Jinping, and Chen Yuan, for example, were on the ballot for membership on the 14th CC in 1992, but none of them was elected [2]. In the election for the alternate members of the 15th CC in 1997, Xi Jinping received the lowest number of votes among the 151 alternate members elected. Wang Qishan and Liu Yandong were also among the bottom ten people in terms of the number of votes received. In 2003, Zhou Xiaochuan received the fewest votes among the 29 ministers on the State Council during the confirmation vote of the NPC.

It seems that as these princelings move to the highest levels of authority, the family ties that previously enabled them to advance may have become a liability. Some princelings, however, have changed their previously poor public images by demonstrating their leadership skills. Zeng Qinghong, for example, has become one of the most respected political leaders in the country. His talent as a dealmaker in politics and a consensus-builder in policy formation has been a major contributing factor for China’s ongoing political institutionalization, especially regarding the peaceful transition of power from Jiang to Hu. Zeng’s likely retirement at this upcoming Party Congress will further earn him great respect in the country.

Wang Qishan is another example of a leader whom the Chinese public regards as capable and trustworthy during times of emergency or crisis. This was evident in the way in which he handled the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in the spring of 2003. Beijing was severely hit by the epidemic and when Wang was appointed as the city’s acting mayor, a large number of patients were already dying and medical facilities were far from adequate. Residents had begun panicking and the government had lost credibility (due to its initial attempts to cover up the epidemic), with some foreign observers calling the crisis “China’s Chernobyl.” Nevertheless, in the following months, Wang proved that he was truly an effective “chief of the fire brigade,” his current moniker in China, as he instituted measures that helped to control the spread of the disease. Not surprisingly, at the Beijing municipal congress meeting the following year, Wang was confirmed as the mayor of Beijing with 742 “yes” votes and only one “no” vote from the delegates [3].

Zeng Qinghong and Wang Qishan, however, are extraordinary figures among the princelings, and they do not necessarily represent this distinct elite group. In fact, most princelings, especially those in the fifth generation, are quite controversial from both the public’s perception and the view of the political establishment. Yet, the shared political identity of the princelings may push them to work together as a more cohesive political force—serving as checks and balances to other powerful elite groups—especially at a time when Hu Jintao’s tuanpai leaders are expected to obtain several seats in the next Politburo [4]. It will be worth noting how the delegates at the 17th Party Congress and the Chinese public will respond to the growing numbers of both princelings and tuanpai and to a great extent, the unfolding drama of competition between these two factions.


1. For further discussion of the factional networks in the CCP, see Jing Huang, Factionalism in Chinese Communist Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Cheng Li, China’s Leaders: The New Generation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
2. Xiao Chong, Zhong gong disidai mengren (The fourth generation of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party). (Hong Kong: Xiafeier Guoji Chubangongsi, 1998), p. 337
3. Xinjing bao (New Beijing daily), February 23, 2004, 1.
4. For the rise of tuanpai, see Cheng Li, “Hu’s Policy Shift and the Tuanpai’s Coming-of-Age.” China Leadership Monitor, (Summer 2005), accessible from