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China’s leader creation system is extraordinary

You need literally no political experience to become US president, as long as you have about US$1 billion to campaign for the job. The Chinese method is very different, with a rigorous system to identify capable, intelligent people, and send them to serve at village and county levels before they return to high leadership roles. Henry Ho and H.C. Lu report.

MOST PEOPLE KNOW how western liberal democracy works, because it is pushed around the world as if it was the only system of generating leaders who serve the people. Yet these days, even its biggest fans admit that the system has produced problematic results. This has made people more open-minded about how citizens are cultivated as leaders in other systems: such as China.

The Chinese government invests a huge amount of time and money on the selection and training of young leaders, known as cadres, each year. They are trained to serve as mayors of cities, governors of provinces and ministers in the Central Government.

In China, the mission of training of people who will become ranking officials is handled by the Communist Party’s Organization Department (組織部). This group will generally identify and select the finest students from top-tiered universities such as Peking University (known as “Beida”) and Tsinghua University. There are about 39 top-rated Mainland universities.

Tsinghua University. Image: Pikacent/Unsplash

The students chosen are generally those who have been recommended by the top universities’ management for their academic achievement and good moral and personal integrity. And of course, they have to be intelligent – people who have achieved outstanding academic results on campus.

Then they move on to the next stage. They need to sit for specific exams to qualify as cadres, and study in the National Academy of Governance for five years.

Peking University’s top students have been trained as young cadres.

Obviously, trainee cadres have to study the history of Chinese political thought. They review Marxism, Leninism, Maoism and other state leaders’ theories. But they also look more widely a politics, economy and management theory and practices. Trainers expect them to demonstrate efficiency in work performance.


But they don’t then go on to have desk jobs and corner offices in modern cities. Young cadres are encouraged to work and serve villagers in rural counties as the best way to start their political careers. They need to show they understand society from a grassroots level to demonstrate their capabilities.

This need to go out to the real world has roots in Chinese history. A 4,000-year-old tale says Emperor Yao devised a series of tests for a man named Shun to test his leadership capabilities, sending him out to most difficult parts of the kingdom. Shun passed the tests, and became Emperor—and then instituted exams every three years to make sure government staff were people of merit.

Young cadres have been encouraged to serve villagers in counties. Image: Zongnan Bao/Unsplash

The cadres have to show how they handle crises in villages and counties. In impoverished areas, they need to bridge the cerebral knowledge they learn in universities with practical problem-solving skills – with the ultimate aim of enhancing the livelihoods of villagers, and farmers, and resolving various kinds of livelihood-related issues such as water supply, agricultural production, road infrastructure and local economic development.

Image: Leon Li/Unsplash

Today’s state leaders, including now President Xi Jinping, served in impoverished regions and accumulated governing experience before climbing up to top leadership posts.

President Xi started his career serving as deputy party secretary and then party secretary in Zhengding county (正定縣) in Shijiazhuang city (石家莊市), Hebei province, between 1982 and 1985.

Xi Jinping as party chief in 1983, Zhengding County, Hebei. Image: CCTV

He gained solid experience of local governance by leading farmers to increase their income levels and pushing for economic development in Zhengding – which paved the way for assuming leadership positions in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai later.

Zhengding county in Shijiazhuang city.

The grooming of young cadres to serve the grassroots in China greatly differs from the political system in the West. In Western political systems, like that of the US, a business person (consider Donald Trump) can serve as president even though he or she may have little or no experience of serving as a regional governor or congressperson in the Capitol.

In contrast, China greatly emphasizes the need for practical experience serving the people in counties and villages, in addition to the book-knowledge gained at universities.


Once you have finished that stint in the countryside, you don’t necessarily move to a comfy desk job. Chinese cadres take part in a system called “temporary postings” (掛職) in order to get highly diversified experience in different fields. Young cadres will be sent out to these new roles while keeping their original posts and salary levels.

Scholars will find themselves serving in leadership roles in rural counties, and low-ranking officials in the Central Government will have to temporarily serve as village heads.  

Former CCTV host Zhang Zheng had assumed various temporary postings.

Many people do this, even if they are already smart, high achieving people. For instance, former famous CCTV hosts Zhang Zheng (張政) and Wang Zhi (王志) are known to have gone through this system, and worked in temporary posts before being promoted to higher roles in the urban areas.   

Zhang Zheng has served as Vice Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

When Zhang, who majored in broadcasting at the Communication University of China (中國傳媒大學) in Beijing, and once hosted Spring Festival galas, worked in CCTV, he took up a temporary post as deputy party secretary of Altay’s county-level city (阿勒泰) in Xinjiang, and in Tongren city (銅仁市) in Guizhou for several years in 2010s.

Zhang told Mainland media that the job nature and responsibilities of serving as CCTV hosts and deputy party secretary were entirely different. Zhang said he had spent a long time to learn how to roll out the Central Government’s policies in the cities.    

Zhang later was promoted to serve as chief editor of Guangming Daily in 2017 and is now Vice Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The 58-year-old is now the alternate member of the party’s Central Committee after the party’s 20th Congress in 2022.

Wang Zhi had worked as CCTV host.

Also, Wang assumed a temporary post as deputy mayor of Lijiang city (麗江市) in Yunnan when he was a CCTV host. With his fame, Wang successfully invited many domestic enterprises to invest in tourism projects in Lijiang. He now serves as vice-president of Minzu University of China (中央民族大學).

Wang Zhi had assumed temporary post as deputy mayor of Lijiang city.


Meanwhile, outstanding cadres in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have a chance to assume leading posts in the Central Government.

Hao Peng (郝鵬) worked in SOE Aviation Industry Corporation of China (中國航空工業集團) for more than 17 years, since the 1970s, after completing degree in aeronautical systems engineering at Northwestern Polytechnical University (西北工業大學). He served as a chief engineer and head of the flight device production department in the Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

Hao Peng had worked in the Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

Hao later was arranged to serve as a deputy mayor in Lanzhou (蘭州市) in Gansu. With his long working experience in the SOE, he served as director of the State Council’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (國務院國資委) for more than six years, until 2022. He monitored the operations of SOEs – which are in important industries and in key areas related to national security and they are the lifeline of the national economy. Hao now serves as the party’s secretary in Liaoning province.


So that’s the system. You start with exceptional academic achievement at top-tiered universities. Then you are groomed for leadership with hands-on experience serving the people in villages and counties.

Then capable cadres take temporary posts in different official positions to get an unusually wide range of governing experience.

This leads to them being promoted to leadership positions in the regions and in the Central Government.

These arrangements create a pool of capable cadres and officials with governance experience and professional knowledge to achieve solid development for the country.     

And if you look at China’s “miracle” growth over recent decades, it’s clear that the system works.

Image at the top from Lan Lin/Unsplash.

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