From Academia to Politics: When Scholars Rule China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 23

Chen Jining is one of a new class of "scholarly politicians"--media savvy, with experience abroad and strong policy positions.

In late October, China’s State Council announced the appointment of Professor Chen Yulu, President of Fudan University as the Vice-Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) (Xinhua News, October 30). Including Prof. Chen, five university presidents have been appointed to senior political positions of State Council ministries and affiliated institutions during the past ten months. Chinese academics are increasingly being appointed to senior political positions. Some have the potential to take top leadership roles within the Chinese government. One such former scholar, Wang Huning, director of the CCP’s Central Committee’s Central Policy Research Center, has received an increasing amount of media exposure both within China and abroad. As a rising star, Wang is a competitive candidate for a spot on the seven-man Standing Committee of the 19th Politburo, China’s top decision-making body.

Chinese officials having advanced degrees is not by itself a new phenomenon. However, the current wave of scholarly politicians includes scholars who have worked for many years in academia as professors before taking into their political offices. As a group, they are not only different from China’s previous generation of technocrats who predominantly had backgrounds in engineering and the sciences, but also from professional politicians who acquired their Ph.D. degrees as top or fast-tracked cadres. Their training and experiences abroad could result in distinctive leadership styles and policies. Additionally, as these “scholarly politicians” gain power after taking their offices, it is likely that they will bring like-minded scholars into the government.

China Opens the Revolving Door

The opening of the revolving door from academia to politics accelerated with the appointment of Prof. Chen Jining, former President of Tsinghua University (where President Xi studied for his Ph.D.) as the new Minister of Environment Protection (MEP) in February. The appointment of three other university presidents to senior political positions quickly followed: in January Hou Jianguo, President of University of Science and Technology of China was appointed as the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Technology (MOT), in February Huai Jinpeng, President of Beihang University (Aeronautics and Astronautics) was appointed as the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT); in March Wang Enge, President of Peking University was appointed as the Vice President of Chinese Academy of Science (, October 30).

The top leadership’s preference for educated officials drives this wave of scholarly politicians. President Xi Jinping has expressed his respect for knowledge, particularly in social sciences, in various diplomatic and domestic occasions. In recent state visits to the United States and United Kingdom, at an anniversary event at the French Embassy and during an interview with the Russian media, President Xi impressed the audiences with references to Western literature and writers in his speeches (Chongqing Morning News, October 16; Phoenix News, March 29, 2014). Xi also attached great importance to Party officials interacting with and learning from non-party intellectuals (Xinhua News, May 20). In his eyes, the knowledge level of party officials directly affects their performance (Xinhua News, September 1, 2012). Interestingly, the official title for the First Lady, Peng Liyuan, has been changed to “Prof. Peng” in a recent Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference after she was made a visiting professor at four universities—and also for serving as dean of the People’s Liberation Army’s Fine Arts Academy (Beijing News, October 15). Recent government action plans have further signaled that academics’ newfound influence is here to stay.

At the end of last year, the CCP released a series of regulations which will accelerate the process of bringing more academics into political positions. The official document, Action Plan Outline on Building National Party and Government Leadership 2014–2018 highlighted the need to recruit officials from State-Owned Enterprises, universities, research institutes and other related public institutions (, December 26, 2014). In a special Circular, President Xi called to develop “new-type” Chinese think tanks with international influence and unleash the power of intellectual community for policy consultation and international publicity (Xinhua News, February 28). Later, President Xi presided over the passing of the Action Plan on National High-Level Think Tank Pilot Programs during the latest meeting of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (Phoenix News, November 12). In line with the Party leadership, these think tanks are expected to provide innovative policy recommendations and pave the way for further reforms. Meanwhile, the State Council issued the Action Plan on Developing China’s World-Class Universities and Subjects to provide sustained human resources for enhancing China’s national power (Xinhua News, November 5). Both of these action plans will create more opportunities for scholars to be involved in the policy making process and advanced to political positions.

Another group with rising political clout is the Expert Advisory Group for China’s 13th Five Year Plan, the Party’s top intellectual brainstorming body. 80 percent of the 55 experts hold doctoral degrees, in the areas of economics, technology, law, environmental protection and public policy. Half of the experts have studied abroad. Among scholarly experts, six are from Academy of Social Sciences, five from Peking University and four from Tsinghua University. A notable metric for measuring the influence of this group is the amount of “face-time” these experts are having with China’s top leaders. Though members of the politburo are regularly briefed on relevant topics, there has been an increase in such contact. Out of the Expert Advisory Group, 16 have given lectures to the Politburo so far this year (Xinhua News, July 13). The politicians they are lecturing are an increasingly educated group as well.

When Scholars Rule China

The educational background of China’s top leadership has seen three distinct generations. First, for Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, senior leaders were former revolutionary and military generals. Though several had experience abroad and some formal education, they were primarily shaped by their revolutionary experiences. Second, in the next two decades, engineering technocrats dominated the party and state’s senior positions. President Jiang Zemin had a degree in electrical engineering. His Premier, Li Peng, studied hydroelectricity in Moscow. Their successors had similar backgrounds: Former President Hu Jintao studied hydraulic engineering and his Premier Wen Jiabao studied geology. For the current leadership, their educational background emphasizes the social sciences—President Xi studied Marxist philosophy and Premier Li Keqiang economics. Both received Ph.D.’s. The change is also reflected in official documents and speeches. Compared to Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping employs more florid language—with frequent use of metaphors and references to literature, instead of using data and other numerical arguments. Additionally, social media, cartoons and videos are frequently used by Xi and his office to deliver messages to younger generations (China Brief, July 17).

Scholarly politicians remain distinct from this most recent group of professional politicians who acquired their doctorate degrees while continuing to work inside the government. Before taking the office, scholarly politicians spent their lives in the classroom, conducting field work and research projects. Their shared academic experiences could potentially imprint some common features on these newly-turned ministers and vice ministers that will affect China’s policy directions and leadership styles.

Innovative and Transparent: Proponents for Reforms

There are indications that scholars tend to be more open and innovative regarding to possible policies, and more willing to taking political risks for non-conventional policies. They are likely to become proponents for President Xi’s comprehensive reforms. For example, information safety has emerged and replaced conventional security concerns on top of China-U.S. relations. As one of China’s most renowned information safety scholars, Huai Jinpeng, the newly appointed Vice Minister of the MIIT has used his position to call for upgrades to China’s information technology infrastructure and protecting internet safety. His new position has given him a platform to air his views. Early this year, Huai gave a lecture on information technology and safety to the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (Xinhua News, April 25). Scholars tend to adopt innovative approaches to challenge traditional practices. Chen Jining and his office vowed to implement strict enforcement of environmental protection laws. Chen introduced a new joint mechanism with the CCDI that holds local governments responsible for environment degradation and prevention. Instead of investigating polluting companies, the Ministry of Environmental Protection now holds local officials responsible when pollution cases are reported. Officials who fail to reduce pollution in their jurisdiction are subjected to further investigation and punishment by the CCDI (MEP website, March 23).

Effective Speakers For Domestic and Foreign Policy

Scholarly politicians tend to be more amiable and open, compared to professional politicians. This class of scholars are media savvy—they are active on Chinese social media and are confident and dynamic in front of the press—a far cry from their dour predecessors. They tend to use media interviews and public campaigns to actively engage with the public—an ability that has proven critical to handling fast-unfolding news events. For instance, two days after his official appointment, Chen Jining held a press conference with over 20 media outlets for his first official appearance. In the meeting, Chen stressed the importance of public participation and campaigns on environment protection. In another instance, less than 24 hours after famous investigative reporter Chai Jing unveiled an independent documentary about China’s severe air pollution, Chen critically shared with the media that he expressed his appreciation for her work in a text message. [1] Further putting the MEP in front of the emerging news story, Chen pledged that the MEP will work closely with the media to increase contact between government and public and address public concerns (Xinhua News, March 1). Chai Jing’s documentary received over 100 million views across Chinese websites. Though the video was later removed from Chinese websites, the timing of Chen’s response was critical, with media exposure of the MEP press meeting extending to the Two Meetings (全国两会), the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a few days later (Xinhua News, March 9). Following Chen’s “media storm,” the MEP launched a popular “Green Lifestyle” public campaign to increase public awareness and change social lifestyle and environmentally-friendly consumption pattern (Xinhua News, November 16). [2] The MEP also created official Wexin and Weibo accounts, and required provincial and local environment protection bureaus to launch their own social media presence and websites in June. In September, Chen’s Ministry further passed new regulations to promote public participation on environmental protection (China News, July 3).

Well-Connected and Recognized Within the International Community

Scholars and university presidents have established extensive connections with international scholars, business and politicians during the course of their academic careers. All of the aforementioned five scholarly politicians previously studied and worked abroad. They have attended international conferences, drafted papers with international scholars and been interviewed by foreign media. With advanced English skills, an important consideration in the selection of scholarly politicians is the ability to better articulate China’s positions internationally. Chen Yulu, the new Vice-Governor of the People’s Bank of China, was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Columbia and a senior visiting scholar at the Eisenhower Fund. Before becoming a politician, Chen Yulu founded a Chinese think tank, the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. This institute focuses on advocating China’s positions within the international intellectual community for China’s presidency of the G20 in 2016 presidency. Some media speculated that the next move for Chen Yulu is to take over as Vice President of the IMF (National Business Daily, October 21). These celebrity scholars have the potential to change the traditional perception of “pokerfaced” Chinese leaders and improve China’s soft power.


Despite apparent advantages to putting more scholars in leadership positions, there are a number of obstacles that can prevent their rise. One important criterion is their political views. The Outline clearly stressed this point that political reliability and correctness is among top criteria for selecting officials (, December 26, 2014). Despite the emphasis on bringing in alternative views to governance, a lack of political correctness or early ideological “indiscretions” in a scholars’ career could end their prospects for leadership positions.

A second obstacle for scholarly politicians is their lack of political experience and shallow practical understanding of how bureaucratic systems work. Reform-minded scholarly politicians will meet strong resistance from the conservative bureaucrats. Scholars might potentially overestimate the efficiency of the policy implementation of their ideas. It depends on their previous political experiences and observations, as well as to what degree Xi’s anti-corruption campaign will change bureaucratic culture and mentality.


The interaction between politics and academia will be enhanced through the “revolving door” between leadership positions and academia, as well as further development of think tanks during Xi’s term. Compared to professional politicians, scholarly politicians’ political ideology and policies are relatively more open and accessible, due to their generally large bodies of public work and frequent public appearances. Such a background will help build trust by clarifying a policymaker’s intentions. It will improve the quality of governance within the Chinese government. After completing their terms, these scholars are likely to return to the universities and share hands-on experiences with Chinese students. A more professional and pragmatic education of political sciences and public policy will benefit China’s future leaders.

Zhibo Qiu is a consultant with the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Her research focuses on China’s domestic politics, foreign policy and overseas investment. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.


1. Chai Jing is one of China’s most famous journalists. She previously worked the CCTV, state television station.

2. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has declared 2016 as “Green Lifestyle” year and June as “ecological protection month.”