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The Anticipated Strong Representation of Foreign-Educated Returnees in Xi’s Third Term

Sep 30, 2022
  • Cheng Li

    Director, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution

It is an irony of history that China and the United States have been moving toward a confrontational course in recent years while the Chinese political leadership has been comprised of many influential American-educated policy makers. During his first two terms, Xi Jinping has worked closely with leaders who have substantial overseas experience, especially in the United States and other Western countries.

The strong representation of these returnees at various levels of leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparently has not changed as a result of the ongoing rapid deterioration of U.S.-China relations. An analysis of the leadership lineup on the eve of the 20th Party Congress shows that this trend will likely continue in Xi’s third term. 

China’s largest study abroad movement and the omnipresence of returnees

The phenomenon of CCP leadership including American-educated returnees is undoubtedly the result of over four decades of educational exchanges between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, which were initiated by Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter in 1979. The breadth and depth of educational exchanges between these two countries with vastly different political systems and ideologies throughout the past four decades has been truly remarkable.

This contemporary Chinese study abroad movement is the largest in Chinese history in terms of both its duration and number of students. Between 1979 and 2018, almost six million PRC citizens studied abroad, with a significant percentage going to the United States. In 2018 alone, over 700,000 Chinese students studied overseas, making the PRC the primary source of international students around the world. In the United States, over 360,000 PRC students enrolled in schools during the 2017-2018 academic year, marking the ninth consecutive year that China sent the most foreign students, who accounted for 33 percent of the total number of international students.

Meanwhile, China has also witnessed what the Chinese have called a “tidal wave of returnees” following the completion of their overseas education. By 2018, over 3.6 million Chinese students and schol­ars who studied abroad had returned to China, representing 85 percent of all Chinese students and scholars who had completed a program abroad.

This phenomenon has resulted in the coining of a new Chinese term to refer to this fast-growing group of Chinese students and scholars returning from abroad — “returnees from overseas” (haigui) or “sea turtles.” In Chinese, the words for “returnee” and “sea turtle” have the same pronunciation, hence the dual meaning of the nickname. The official Chinese definition of a returnee (liuxue huiguo renyuan) is someone who was born in China, left to study or work overseas as a student or visiting scholar for cumulatively over one year, and then returned to their native country.

These foreign-educated returnees now play important roles in China, including in educational institutions, research centers, state and private enterprises, for­eign or joint-venture companies, law firms, hospitals and clinics, media net­works, and non-government organizations. One may reasonably argue that reform-era China is incomprehensible without accounting for the impact of foreign educational exchanges. The presence of returnees in the leadership of the Chinese Party-state, including Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of PRC decision-makers), has also been noticeable over the past decade. 

Influential leaders who studied abroad in Zhongnanhai today

Four prominent returnees have played crucial leadership roles in Xi’s second term. They all serve on the 25-member Politburo, and one of them also sits on the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the supreme decision-making body in the country. They are responsible for some of the most important areas: Wang Huning (strategy and ideology), Liu He (finance and technology), Yang Jiechi (foreign policy), and Chen Xi (personnel).

PSC member Wang Huning (1955) has earned the nicknames “chief advisor of Zhongnanhai” and “China’s Henry Kissinger” and has long served as a strategic and ideological designer for top leaders including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. A speaker of both French and English, Wang served as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa when he was a professor of International Relations at Fudan University in the late 1980s. Based on this experience, in 1991 he wrote an intriguing book “America against America,” focusing on various internal contradictions and paradoxical phenomena within the United States at the time.

Vice Premier Liu He (1952), who received an MPA degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was a year-long visiting scholar at Seton Hall University, is responsible for financial affairs and technological innovation in the country. Liu is a childhood friend and trusted confidant of Xi. In 2013 Xi introduced Liu to U.S. national security adviser Thomas Donilon, who was visiting Beijing, by saying that “Liu is very important to me.” An author of the influential 2013 book, “A Comparative Study of Two Global Financial Crises,” Liu is a well-respected economist both at home and abroad. Even before the Xi era, Liu was one of the principal drafters of communiqués on economic issues for key leadership meetings under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. He is the principal designer of the “economic new normal” policy in present-day China.

China’s highest-ranking diplomat, Yang Jiechi (1950), studied at the University of Bath and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the mid-1970s, soon after the historical trips by Nixon and Kissinger to Beijing. As a diplomat, Yang completed three stints in the PRC Embassy in Washington, D.C., totaling 12 years. Yang has worked very closely with the top leaders of the four generations of PRC leadership, having served as an interpreter for Deng and been appointed as ambassador to the United States by Jiang, minister of foreign affairs by Hu, and state councilor by Xi. Yang’s membership in the Politburo during Xi’s second term has reflected the increased importance of foreign affairs to the CCP leadership. No representatives from China’s foreign affairs apparatus had served on the Politburo over the 15 years prior to Yang’s appointment. Further, Yang is the first former ambassador to the United States to serve in the Politburo.

Director of the Central Organization Department Chen Xi (1953) is responsible for personnel appointments. Xi Jinping and Chen Xi were classmates and roommates at Tsinghua University from 1975 to 1979, when they were both students in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Chen advanced his professional and political career from Tsinghua University, where he later served as Party secretary. During his time as a professor at Tsinghua, he spent two years as a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the early 1990s. Chen also served as vice minister of education (2008-2010) and Party secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology (2011-2013). As the previous article in this series described, Chen’s experiences may help explain the growing presence of university administrators and academicians ­­–– many of whom are foreign-educated returnees –– in the Party leadership at present and in the future.

The influence of these four well-positioned leaders with foreign study and work experience shows that foreign-educated returnees no longer serve only in the lower-levels of leadership or in limited functional areas such as education and foreign trade, as was the case 15 years ago. They now head some of the most important high offices in Zhongnanhai. 

The increase in representation of returnees in the Central Committee

The representation of returnees on the Central Committee (CC) of the CCP has gradually increased over the past two decades –– from 6.2 percent on the 16th CC, to 10.5 percent on the 17th CC, to 14.6 percent on the 18th CC, and to 20.5 percent on the 19th CC. This means that one in every five members of this powerful leadership body had at least one year of experience in foreign studies (see Table 1).

RR20 Table 1 Returnees in CCs Final.png

Based on the current composition of the ministerial and provincial chiefs as well as senior leaders in the Party central departments, the military, and China’s leading financial institutions and flagship companies, this study forecasts that the representation of returnees on the 20th CC will likely remain at the same level as the 19th CC with a slight increase in full membership (from 17.6 percent to 19.7 percent).

Table 2 displays the duration of foreign study and work undertaken by the members of the 18th and 19th CCs. About three-quarters of them (75 percent of the 18th CC and 78 percent of the 19th CC) spent less than three years abroad, reflecting the relatively short-term, one-year visiting scholarship programs that most of these leaders undertook. Only roughly 10 percent of these leaders in both CCs stayed overseas for more than six years. Most of these years were spent pursuing intensive study for an academic degree. Only a few have taught at foreign universities or had long-term research experience after completing formal schooling. This is likely to do with the fact that the longer one stays overseas, the more difficult it is to obtain a security clearance.

RR20 Table 2 ForeignDuration 18th and 19th Final.png

The two tables above do not include leaders who attended three-month long training programs like the one at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2002, with the support of the CCP Central Organization Department (COD), the Development Research Center of the State Council, Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government launched a joint program to train 60 Chinese leaders at the bureau level or above each year for five years and later extended the program for another five years.

A total of 600 middle-aged Chinese officials attended these three-month long programs at the Kennedy School. Attendees of this program and similar short-term programs at the Kennedy School have included current Politburo member and Tianjin Party Secretary Li Hongzhong (1956) and current members of the 19th CC such as Liaoning Party Secretary Zhang Guoqing (1964), President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Shi Taifeng (1956), Guangxi Party Secretary Liu Ning (1962), Ningxia Party Secretary Liang Yanshun (1962), Neimenggu Governor Wang Lixia (1964), Jilin Governor Han Jun (1963), and Liaoning Governor Li Lecheng (1965).

Some other CC members attended short-term study programs in other U.S. universities or schools in other economically advanced countries. According to the data collected by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, over 70,000 Chinese nationals participated in overseas short-term study programs each year in 2009 and 2010. For analytical constancy, the officials who attended short-term study programs, including that at the Harvard Kennedy School, are not considered foreign-educated returnees.

Short-term foreign study programs could still be instrumental in a leader’s career development. Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that a large percentage of Chinese middle- and high-level leaders completed short-term foreign studies may help reduce tensions between foreign-educated and home-trained officials in present-day China. The history of contemporary China has shown that differences in political leaders’ educational backgrounds and career experiences are often the source of tensions and conflicts. 

Prominent power contenders with returnee backgrounds for the 20th Central Committee

Table 3 presents 21 prominent candidates with foreign study and work experience for the 20th CC. Two Politburo members, Liu He and Chen Xi, will either enter the new PSC or retire from their Party leadership posts to more ceremonial positions after the 20th Party Congress. Two state councilors, Wang Yi (1953) and Xiao Jie (1957), are strong candidates for Politburo seats this October. If they ascend to the Politburo, they will play even more important roles in China’s foreign relations and financial and economic policies, respectively.

RR20 Table 3 Top Returnees 20da Final.docx.png

Six provincial chiefs with foreign study experience are considered candidates for Politburo seats in October, including Hunan Party Secretary Zhang Qingwei (1961), Zhejiang Party Secretary Yuan Jiajun (1962), Fujian Party Secretary Yin Li (1962), Shandong Party Secretary Li Ganjie (1964), Beijing Mayor Chen Jining (1964), and Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng (1960). Of course, not all of them will ascend to the Politburo. But if half of them indeed obtain Politburo seats in addition to some others on the top of the list (see Table 3), there will be a record high representation of returnees in the Politburo.

Culture Minister Hu Heping (1962), Hainan Party Secretary Shen Xiaoming (1963), Heilongjiang Party Secretary Xu Qin (1961), President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Hou Jianguo (1959), and Chair of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese Wan Lijun (1957) will most likely retain their full membership seats this October. Three current alternate members –– Governor of the People’s Bank of China Yi Gang (1958), Gansu Party Secretary Yin Hong (1963), and Guangdong Governor Wang Weizhong (1962) –– will be promoted to full membership at the 20th CC. Three leaders on the list are not members of the 19th CC. Executive Vice President of the Supreme People’s Court He Rong (1962) will likely obtain a full membership while Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu (1963) and Beijing Deputy Party Secretary Yin Yong (1969) will likely become first-time alternate members on the 20th CC.

Almost half of these leaders were overseas for less than three years, similar to the two previous CCs. Nine of them received advanced degrees overseas, including five doctoral degrees. Chen Jining spent a total of ten years in London for his Ph.D studies and post-doctoral fellowship in the field of environmental science at the prestigious Imperial College. Yi Gang spent 14 years in the United States studying for his doctoral degree in economics at the University of Illinois and serving as a professor at Indiana University. The long-term overseas experiences of Chen and Yi are exceptions rather than the norm among Chinese political leaders. It remains to be seen whether the political careers of these two leaders will further advance in October.

Most of these leaders studied in Western countries and more than half of them were degree candidates and visiting scholars at schools in the United States. Some studied and worked in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, Singapore, and Canada. Noticeably, Fujian Party Secretary Yin Hong received his doctoral degree in public health from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. It will be interesting to see whether his foreign study experience in Russia –– exceptional among Chinese civilian leaders –– will give him an advantage in obtaining a Politburo seat in the new political environment. 

A reverse of these trends on the horizon?

Some left-wing Maoist media outlets in China have been critical of the growing prevalence of Chinese leaders with Western studies backgrounds, especially those who were trained at the Kennedy School. In fact, the Kennedy School training program ended around the time that Xi became the top leader. In recent years, the COD has tightly restricted similar short-term training programs for cadres in the United States and other Western countries.

The trend of having many Chinese students studying in the United States is subject to change resulting from various factors such as the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-China relations, U.S. government restrictions on PRC students enrolling in STEM programs, travel restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increase of gun violence and rising number of anti-Asian hate crimes in American cities. According to U.S. State Department statistics, in the first seven months of 2022, the United States issued 77,796 F1 student visas to Indian students, compared with 46,145 F1 visas issued to PRC students during the same period.

Understandably, under the current circumstances, Beijing aims to diversify the destination countries for Chinese students and scholars. In fact, the Chinese authorities have made concerted efforts for years to send Chinese students and scholars to non-Western countries. This is particularly true with the educational exchanges between China and Russia and the training of China’s military officers in Russia. If the Chinese civilian leadership is dominated by U.S.-educated returnees, Russian-educated officers are prevalent among foreign-educated PLA generals. The next two articles will examine this more recent development.

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