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Political Power and the Nine Nations of China

March 12, 2010

The National People’s Congress (NPC) has been in full swing this week in Beijing.  Even if it’s mostly just theater, the NPC offers an important stage for up-and-coming politicians to jockey for position.  In two years (2012), President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are expected to retire, along with nearly half of the 25-member Politburo.  An entirely new generation of Chinese leaders will take over, and exactly who that will be is still being thrashed out.

I was recently reading the first in a series of upcoming articles in China Leadership Review by Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institute.  The series is called “China’s Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012,” and the first part focuses on provincial leaders.  It’s a worthwhile read on many levels, but I was particularly struck by one point where he mentions that “approximately 58 percent of [provincial] leaders were born in … six provinces, and about 40 percent were born in four provinces of Eastern China (Shandong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Anhui).”  This seems to be a rather remarkable concentration, and I decided to explore the question further.

Those who have read my article “The Nine Nations of China” in The Atlantic may recall that I highlighted the region I call the Yellow Land (the Yellow River Valley and North China Plain) as the traditional center of political power in China.  I also noted that the Metropolis (the Yangtze Delta) is the only region wealthy and central enough to rival the Yellow Land for political primacy.  This was essentially a historical argument based on the observation that, in virtually every period when China was ruled as a unified state, the capital was located in the Yellow Land.  The only exceptions to this rule were a handful of times it was moved to the richer Metropolis.  None of the other regions have ever ruled over a unified China.

The implication — unproven — is that certain of the Nine Nations may continue to exert greater political influence in China today.  That’s also what intrigued me about Cheng Li’s observation that China’s leaders tended to come from certain provinces.  Are the historical patterns I noted reflected in the composition of China’s present-day leadership?

To answer this question, I decided to focus on two groups.  The first is the 204-member Central Committee of the Communist Party.  This body includes not only China’s top leaders, as defined by the Politburo, but also most of its government ministers, top military leadership, senior party functionaries, and a large number of provincial party leaders and governors. 

The second group consists of all 62 provincial party leaders and governors, plus the chief executives of the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions (SARs) and the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office — a total of 65 officials.  Taiwan was not included in the analysis, because of the difficulty of making reasonable comparisons across political systems.

The following is the breakdown for each group, based on their members’ place of origin.  In a handful of cases where an official’s biography emphasized that he or she had been born in one place but is considered a native of somewhere else, I went with the latter.  Of course, one must also compare the results with the population of each region, which is not evenly distributed across China:

    Central Provincial
Region Population Committee Leadership
The Yellow Land 27% 37% 37%
The Back Door 8% 2% 8%
The Metropolis 11% 18% 18%
The Refuge 8% 5% 2%
The Crossroads 17% 16% 15%
Shangri-La 10% 2% 2%
The Rust Belt 8% 12% 8%
The Frontier 6% 6% 8%
The Straits 4% 2% 3%


Two regions immediately stand out: the Yellow Land and the Metropolis.  True, they have larger populations than most, but even taking that into account, their political influence is clear.  While together they account for just over a third (38%) of China’s population, they account for well over half (55%) of its leaders, both on the Central Committee and provincial level.  That’s worth stating again, just to be clear — over half of China’s senior officials come from the Yellow Land or the Metropolis.

The most under-represented region is, by far, Shangri-La (remote, mountainous southwest China) — with 10% of China’s population, it accounts for a paltry 2% of officials on the Central Committee and provincial level.  The Refuge (the Sichuan basin, just north of Shangri-La) also comes up short, accounting for 8% of the population but just 5% of the Central Committee and 2% of provincial leaders.

The Back Door (the Pearl River Delta region) presents an interesting case.  Despite accounting for 8% of China’s population, its natives hardly hold any power (2%) on the Central Committee.  But, largely due to the fact that Hong Kong and Macau have been set up as semi-autonomous SARs (“one country, two systems”), the Back Door enjoys a proportional standing among provincial leaders.  This pattern is actually quite consistent with the Back Door’s historical character, in which it has been accorded considerable local autonomy in large part due to its lack of national influence.

The Crossroads (the middle Yangtze) and the Rust Belt (Manchuria) both have political influence roughly commensurate with their populations.  To some degree, this may be due to their strong revolutionary heritages.  The Crossroads was where both the Nationalist and Communist revolutions got their start, and where many of China’s first generation of Communist leaders (including Mao) were born.  The Rust Belt was the first region to fall to Communist military control in 1947, and served as the focal point for state-led industrialized during the heyday of Soviet-style central planning.  It would not be surprising for a reasonable portion of the present Communist party leadership to hail from these regions.

Finally, the Frontier (China’s far west) and the Straits (its southeast coast) are affected by their place at the margins of Chinese political life.  The natives of the Frontier receive a boost in their provincial-level influence from the requirement that all chairman (governors) of autonomous regions (including Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia) must belong to the minority that comprises the majority there (the same requirement does not apply, notably, to the regional party secretaries, who are almost always Han Chinese).  The Straits, in contrast, enjoys proportionally less influence within the PRC leadership, relative to its population, due to the unique status of Taiwan.

Obviously, it would be unwarranted to see Chinese officials as “representing” their places of origin.  Many have held posts in other provinces and see their role and their careers from a national perspective.  But if 37% of all leading officeholders in the U.S. hailed from California, and over half came from California and Texas, it might tell you something about their outlook and assumptions.

What the figures seem to suggest is that, while political power is fairly dispersed in China, some regions — the Yellow Land and the Metropolis — continue to play a dominant role consistent with their history and character, whereas other regions — Shangri-La, the Refuge, and to some degree the Back Door — play a far more marginal role on China’s political stage.  In any event, the numbers offer interesting food for thought.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ivan Szpakowski permalink
    March 12, 2010 11:10 pm

    FYI: Cheng Li’s China Leadership Monitor is on the web at:

  2. ChunJiHo permalink
    March 13, 2010 9:10 am

    First, despite my inadequate knowledge of Chinese history, I thought that the capitals of the Qin and the Han dynasties were too far away from Beijing to be a part of the yellow land, but then I retook a look at your definition of the nine nations and realized that, despite first look appearances, the yellow land is quite large!

    Anyway, thank you for your analysis on the composition of Chinese leadership. Yasheng Huang argues in his book that leadership from the eastern coastal provinces tended to lean more towards state-led growth. From what I can tell from your post, the composition of the Chinese future leadership may lead China more into that direction. Do you agree with this?

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