The Chinese Politburo Hits the Books

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 15

Understanding the inner workings of China’s Politburo has always been a difficult challenge for observers. Pervasive secrecy has forced scholars to rely on dubious articles in Hong Kong newspapers—usually based on anonymous, questionable sources—to speculate upon the concerns of the Chinese leadership. In a notable break from the past, however, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao has convened a series of publicized Politburo study sessions over the past three years that give some insight into Zhongnanhai’s priorities. Although these sessions are reported via official media such as the Xinhua news agency and CCTV, they provide a new window into the priorities of the Chinese leadership (or at least into the issues that they want the public to believe are its main concerns).

The Mechanics

The Politburo has convened 32 study sessions since Hu Jintao was first appointed general secretary at the November 2002 party congress [1]. They have increased in frequency since the inception of the series and now occur almost every month, with 10 sessions convened in 2005 alone. Sessions fall on either the same day or the day after the Politburo’s monthly meetings.

Each session assembles the entire Politburo to attend lectures delivered by two scholars, followed by a question and answer session. At the end of the session, Hu Jintao concludes the lectures by addressing the relevance of the meeting to ongoing party business. Speakers have been drawn primarily from government think-tanks and prestigious universities, although speakers on somewhat narrow topics have come from more specialized institutions.

Xinhua publishes a report within 24 hours of each session that includes the names of the speakers, the topic of the session and a summary of the remarks made by President Hu. The sessions have routinely been the lead CCTV story on the day of the event, except for days on which other major events occurred. These broadcasts consist of images from the proceedings accompanied by information—similar to the Xinhua report—read by an announcer. No specific information is given regarding discussions among Politburo members in either the broadcasts or the reports, nor is a transcript or summary of the scholars’ remarks released. Given the speed with which Xinhua releases its reports, it is safe to conclude that President Hu’s remarks are probably prepared beforehand and do not directly reflect the presentations or discussions at the session. The media coverage is in Chinese, suggesting that it is aimed primarily at a domestic audience.

As one scholar remarked to the writers, the sessions are choreographed to appear as a casual assembly of graduate students. President Hu forgoes his normal suit and tie, opting instead for a button down shirt and occasionally a casual jacket. Other participants are dressed similarly, although some seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to leave their suits or military uniforms in the closet. Approximately 20-25 individuals, including all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, sit at a round table in the center of the room while President Hu sits against the wall, facing the group. Several rows of seats flank the inner table and are occupied by the remaining members of the Politburo and other guests. The attendees appear to be very studious during the sessions, with CCTV broadcasts showing them diligently reading, highlighting and taking notes on the presentations.


The topics of the study sessions vary widely, though most fall into discernable categories. Broadly grouped, eight sessions have focused on ideology and party affairs, eight on economic issues, eight on good governance, two on science and technology, two on security and military affairs, two on agriculture and two on other matters (See Table 2.1 for details of each meeting). Sessions on ideology have concentrated on the evolution of the party’s governing role while retaining its Marxist foundations; sessions on the economy have underscored the importance of economic development; and sessions on governance have stressed the importance of the rule of law and the reform of governmental institutions.

Study session topics have been primarily oriented toward domestic issues. To date, 21 have been concerned with domestic affairs, five with international affairs and six with both. In addition to economic development, rule of law and institutional reform, domestic topics have included the importance of science and technology, the need for inter-ethnic unity, agricultural policy and worker safety. International topics have addressed the importance of international trade, the nature of the global political-economy, global military transformation and a history of the rise and fall of empires in the modern era. Sessions with a dual domestic/international orientation have included China’s energy security, the development of China’s cultural industry, intellectual property rights, the interdependence of economic development and a strong national defense and remembrance of the “Anti-Fascist War” against Japan.

While the topics of the sessions address a number of matters known to be important to the party leadership, some critical issues have been conspicuously absent. For instance, popular protests, corruption, Taiwan, U.S.-China relations and Asian regionalism have not been addressed in the study sessions. Regarding international affairs, Japan has been the only country specifically mentioned in Hu Jintao’s remarks (and this was only in reference to the Sino-Japanese War during World War II). There have only been general statements about China’s priorities in international politics, economics and military affairs.

The most significant foreign press coverage of the study sessions came after a session that included reference to the need for greater democratic participation and a session that alluded to media liberalization. These comments, however, should be viewed within context. Both references were made in the body of statements with strong ideological overtones. Furthermore, two sessions reaffirming the Marxist foundations of the party followed the session that touched on democracy. Therefore, while these progressive statements are important, they must be seen as small pieces in a long series of study sessions, which collectively resemble a syllabus for a course being taught by Hu Jintao.


Each session features presentations by two prominent Chinese academics. Reflecting the party’s increasing emphasis on formal educational credentials, the speakers are extremely well educated, often with doctorates from foreign universities. As a result of their sometimes lengthy residence overseas, they may bring a degree of outside perspective to the discussion that is absent when the Politburo meets alone. Nevertheless, these are not divisive individuals promoting revisionist ideas. They are generally establishment figures that represent mainstream Chinese views in their particular fields.

Reflecting a preference for discussion over debate, speakers do not present competing perspectives on the day’s topic. Rather, speakers appear to be paired based on the complementarity of their expertise. For example, recent sessions have paired an expert on financial markets with an international trade specialist (Huang Weiping and Pei Changhong), an expert on migration and social security with one on social stratification (Jing Tiankui and Li Peilin) and an expert on soil geography and land resources with an alternative fuel specialist (Sun Honglie and Wan Gang).

Notable as well is the relatively low formal positions that most presenters occupy. Instead of inviting the presidents or directors of major universities and think tanks, specific scholars are chosen for their relevant expertise, thus supporting the idea that the sessions are truly an academic exercise. It is striking, however, that invitations have only been extended to scholars and not to entrepreneurs, even for sessions on the economy.

Audience and Messages

Given that the sessions represent a significant allocation of leadership time, why does Hu Jintao hold these study sessions, and what do they reveal about the Politburo’s thinking?

The sessions are promoted as a forum for senior cadres to learn about a variety of issues that are related to the party’s work. While not a forum for debate or decisions, they do give Politburo members the opportunity to learn about important emerging issues that cut across bureaucratic lines. Given that many of China’s top leaders are trained as engineers, exposure to knowledge about broader issues such as the global economy and world history is valuable. Sessions have urged senior party officials to acquire a better understanding of the world economy, stressed the importance of building the party’s ability to rule and considered the causes of the decline of empires throughout history.

The study sessions also serve broader political purposes. Most prominently, these sessions highlight Hu Jintao’s role as general secretary and the paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party. They provide Hu with a platform to propound his views on a wide variety of topics and a setting in which other Politburo members are seen to follow his leadership on these topics. Hu used the very first session in December 2002 to consolidate his power by stressing the importance of the constitution, an important message at a time when Jiang Zemin had retired as general secretary but still held the key position of chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The publicity given to the sessions also helps to improve the public image of the Chinese leadership. At a time when many Chinese are beginning to call for a more transparent government, the sessions promote an image of open, responsible leadership. The informal attire suggests leaders who are working hard to understand and address China’s problems. Although the sessions do not directly reveal the Politburo’s policymaking process, they do offer a glimpse at the inner workings that past leaders did not provide. This marks a symbolic departure from the secrecy that had formerly surrounded the Politburo’s work and has been skillfully exploited by Hu to distinguish his presidency from that of Jiang.

The study sessions also promote an image that the Politburo is thinking seriously about a range of issues that it feels are important to the country. They serve as a high profile platform for President Hu to reassure certain constituents that the leadership is aware of and responsive to their needs. Sessions on the government’s vigilance regarding agricultural policy, political rights for minorities and SARS were clearly meant to assuage particular segments of society. A session on the importance of expanding employment and helping unemployed State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) workers was intended to win over those left on the margins of economic liberalization. Furthermore, the press coverage of the sessions provides a means for Hu Jintao to express the party’s concerns and policy proposals in a less formal manner.

The study sessions have also served as an arena to reaffirm the ideological foundations of the party and its leadership. Although most sessions have centered on policy issues, eight have focused primarily on ideology or party affairs and all have had significant ideological undertones. In nearly every session, President Hu has stated the importance of basing China’s future development on Mao Zedong Theory, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the “important thinking of the ‘Three Represents.’” As the party seeks to redefine Chinese socialism for a prosperous, 21st-century China, Hu is using the sessions to both articulate this vision and reconfirm the validity of the party’s ideological foundations.


What do the Politburo study sessions tell us about Chinese leadership politics? They provide some insight into which issues Hu Jintao thinks are important and what his official views are on these issues. Close analysis of the topics and Hu Jintao’s remarks can also suggest which constituencies the Chinese leadership feels are politically important (such as farmers and laid-off SOE workers) and what messages it seeks to send to these groups. The study sessions, however, do not provide insights into the discussions or disagreements among members of the Politburo, nor do they paint a complete picture of leadership concerns (since issues such as foreign relations, defense and corruption are not addressed). The messages Hu sends by his choice of topics and the content of his remarks at the Politburo study sessions provide only a limited window into Chinese elite politics, but if carefully analyzed, even that limited window can be a useful tool to improve our understanding.

One important purpose of the study sessions is to convey the impression that under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the party has become more transparent and responsive to public concerns. The study sessions demonstrate that China’s top leaders are thinking seriously about the major problems China faces and are seeking more outside input into the policy process than in the past. The fact that Hu feels the need to respond to a perceived popular demand for more open and responsive politics is significant. Yet, the increased openness, provided by means such as the Politburo study sessions, contrasts sharply with recent efforts to crack down on the internet, news media and non-governmental organizations that would genuinely open up Chinese politics to a wider range of views. The preference for carefully-controlled mechanisms such as the study sessions reveals a Chinese leadership that is more open to outside input than in the past, but still believes that debates and decisions should be kept inside the Communist Party.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. The authors thank INSS interns Kim Danh and Erik Quam for research assistance on this paper.


1. The article is based primarily upon Xinhua reports of all 32 Politburo study sessions, supplemented by viewing excerpts of CCTV broadcasts of the sessions, a review of the backgrounds of the speakers, and short conversations with two individuals who briefed at study sessions.