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How many of the Chinese Communist Party elite were educated at a UK university?

  • 3 September 2021
  • By Michael Natzler

This blog was written by Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer. Michael is on Twitter @Michael_Natzler.

Yesterday, we published the 2021 HEPI Soft-Power Index, by Nick Hillman, outlining where around the globe world leaders have been educated. While the UK comfortably keeps the number two spot, having provided education for 57 current world leaders, this is the fourth year on the trot that the gap with the United States (US) has widened, with 65 current world leaders having received education in the US. Never claiming to be comprehensive, this index provides a snapshot and a starting point for conversations about higher education and soft power.

The International Education Strategy (2019), its 2021 update and Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (2021) reference the Soft Power Index and other ways aspects of UK higher education can be viewed through a soft-power lens. The 2021 International Education Strategy reads:

International education enhances the UK’s soft power, through promoting its reputation, developing people-to-people links and government-to-government partnerships. 

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 141,870 China-domiciled students registered for study in the UK in 2019/20. Such a high number would suggest that the soft power benefit of educating so many Chinese students each year – now over 1 million since 2005 – should and could be quite significant. Yet despite the tone in the International Education Strategies and the high number of Chinese students attending UK higher education institutions, very often, when China and UK higher education is in the spotlight, the emphasis (in the media and in reports from some think tanks) is on risks, most commonly in reference to concerns about UK-China science collaborations and interference on UK campuses.

The Soft Power Index looks at heads of state and heads of government, naturally, as anything larger would be an even trickier piece of work to undertake. But since there are so many Chinese students attending UK universities and it is a country most in the spotlight in terms of power relations, it is worth looking at those who govern China today. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the governing party in China – is not widely understood in the West, there are pockets of expertise. Victor Shih, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California runs a China Data Lab project centred on growing a database of information about who the, in Professor Shih’s words, ‘CCP Elite’ are. Shih defines the ‘CCP Elite’ as those across different levels of the Party, from the most senior in the Politburo Standing Committee to the lower ranks of the Provincial Standing Committee. In the diagram below, from the Council on Foreign Relations, the left-hand side outlines the levels of leadership.

In total, there are 1,026 CCP members on the China Data Lab database. A very modest three of the current CCP Elite have been educated in the UK whose profiles are outlined below. Yang Jiechi is a very senior politician in China as a member of the Politburo who Wikipedia credits as ‘one of the foremost contemporary architects of China’s foreign policy’ and still plays an active role. Chen Jining and Liu Jainchao, while less recognisable, are still significant figures in the CCP. Chen Jining, notably with PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering, was formerly the Minister of Environmental Protection. Educating the Minister of Environmental Protection for the world’s largest emitter of carbon emissions in the world is no mean feat.

Name (Age)Higher education institution(s)Rank and key rolesSubject studied
Yang Jiechi (67)Ealing College; University of Bath (1973-4); London School of Economics (1974-1975)Politburo; Former Ambassador to the US; Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission OfficeUnknown, but later received a PhD in History in China
Chen Jining (53)Brunel University London (1980s); Imperial College London (obtained PhD in 1993)Full Central Committee; Mayor of Beijing; Former Minister of Environmental ProtectionCivil and Environmental Engineering
Liu Jianchao (53)University of Oxford (1986-87)Provincial Standing Committee; former ambassador and spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign AffairsInternational Relations

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Elite educated in the United Kingdom

According to China Data Lab, alongside 12 others at various ranks, Liu He, a member of the Politburo and one of the Vice-Premiers was educated in the United States.

UK Chinese student numbers first began to rise rapidly in 2005 long after any of the current UK-educated CCP Elite were in the UK. They belong to a very different era of Chinese students in the UK. So what of the huge number of UK-educated Chinese students today and the future of the CCP elite? The Council on Foreign Relations writes:

Party leadership is decided through secretive negotiations. Some experts split the CCP’s power structure into two distinct camps: the “princelings,” the children of high-level leaders, and the “tuanpai,” those who came from humbler backgrounds and rose to power through the Communist Youth League. 

While there has been a recent growth of well-respected Chinese universities challenging UK and US institutions in world rankings, the ‘princelings’ of the CCP elite will also have been attending UK and US universities. It is impossible to tell whether the 2005 uptick of Chinese students coming to the UK will have a material effect on the number of the CCP Elite educated at a UK higher education institution. The youngest member of the CCP Elite is Guo Peng at 41. She would have been 23 in 2005. If Guo Peng’s age is anything to go by, in five years’ time we might – if we do at all – begin to see the effect on numbers of UK-educated CCP Elite.  

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