The rise of aerospace specialists like Ma Xingrui and Zhang Hongwen is a notable exception to the Xi era turn away from technocracy and engineer-politicians.
Since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, several accomplished Chinese systems engineers from the China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) have been promoted to take on provincial leadership positions. The rise of technocrats in Chinese politics is certainly not a new phenomenon. Tracing back to influential figures such as Qian Xuesen and Ding Henggao, China’s space and missile industry has enjoyed high political standing since the late 1950s. Engineer-politicians dominated the CCP’s leadership during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years.
However, Xi Jinping’s Politburo Standing Committee today only sees Xi himself with a questionable engineering background while all six other members are “political theorists or economists.” The re-emergence of a possible “aerospace clique (航天系)” in CCP politics under Xi’s reign is of particular interest yet largely escaped notice. Who are they? What are the political implications?
Zhang Hongwen: From YJ-18 to Anhui
A former deputy director of the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC), Zhang Hongwen, was assigned as a vice governor of Anhui Province in September 2020. He was elected as a member of the provincial Party Committee in November 2021 and carries a provincial/ministerial-level civil service grade. His vice governor portfolio includes military-civil fusion and promotion of technological innovation.
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He is frequently seen inspecting provincial industrial enterprises, promoting Xi’s S&T directives, and pressing for the commercialization of technology innovation. Zhang also oversees major research programs at universities in Anhui, such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Hefei Institute of Physical Science. In April 2021, Zhang inspected artificial intelligence work being carried out at the renowned University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. In December, he convened the second China Fusion Energy Conference, an event co-hosted by China Academy of Engineering Physics, China’s sole supplier of nuclear weapons to the People’s Liberation Army.
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Before his assignment to Anhui, Zhang served as a deputy director of CASIC and directed the CASIC Third Academy, which is responsible for research, development, production, and sustainment of cruise missiles. A native of Shaanxi province, Zhang was awarded a doctorate degree from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in launch vehicle design. He spent most of his career working within the Third Academy’s Third Design Department and was assigned increasingly greater responsibility for cruise missile systems engineering, allegedly including serving as deputy chief designer for the Yingji-18 (YJ-18) supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. Zhang reportedly went on stage to receive the prestigious National Science and Technology (S&T) Progress Special Grade Award in 2017, alongside Zhu Kun and Li Lixin, the chief designer and program manager of the project, respectively.
Ma Xingrui: Aerospace Spirit Shines Over Xinjiang
If Zhang Hongwen represents future leaders of the “aerospace clique,” Ma Xingrui may inch closer to the CCP’s center of gravity much sooner. Dubbed the “Aerospace Marshall (航天少帅),” Ma succeeded Chen Quanguo as secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region party committee in December 2021. Ma’s assignment to a politically charged position at this time suggests central party organs in Beijing place significant trust in him.
Before his current assignment in Xinjiang, Ma served as governor of Guangdong, one of China’s wealthiest provinces. Before his assignment to Guangdong, he directed the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) and the China National Space Administration (CNSA). He served concurrently as a vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. A native of Heilongjiang, he was a researcher at the Harbin Institute of Technology before his 1996 assignment to the CASC Fifth Academy, also known as the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). While at CAST, Ma served concurrently as program manager and chief designer of the chief designer and chief administrator of the Shijian-5 satellite and helped managed the Chang’e-3 lunar exploration program.
Below is a list of aerospace politicians who are currently active in the Chinese political systems. The Chinese definition of “aerospace” may be limited to space and missiles; aviation is treated as a different and separate system. This list, however, uses “aerospace” in a Western sense that covers “everything that flies,” and includes key figures in Chinese aviation for references purposes.
List of Chinese Aerospace-Politicians (as of February 2022) Name DOB Background Current Position Previous Positions Held Zhang Qingwei November 1961 CASC First Academy;, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) Member, 19th Central Committee (2021-); Director National People’s Congress of Hunan (2022-); Hunan Party Secretary (2021-) Party Secretary of Heilongjiang Governor of Hebei, Member, 17th,18th Central Committee Ma Xingrui October 1959 CASC Fifth Academy Party Secretary of XUAR (2021-) Party Secretary, Governor of Guangdong (2017-2021); Party Secretary of Shenzhen (2015-17) Yuan Jiajun September 1962 CASC (Fifth Academy) Member, 19th Central Committee (2021-); Party Secretary of Zhejiang (2020-); Director NPC of Zhejiang (2020-) Member of Party Standing Committee of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (2012-2014) Xu Dazhe September 1956 CASC First Academy, CASIC Member, 19th Central Committee; possibly to retire soon Party Secretary of Hunan (2016-2021), Member, 18th Central Committee Chen Qiufa December 1954 China Aerospace Corporation (CASC) Commissioner, National People’s Congress Ed, Science, and Cultural Commission Party Secretary of Liaoning (2017-2020) Hao Peng July 1960 Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) Member,19th Central Committee; Chairman and party committee secretary, State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) 2016- Governor of Qinghai (2013-16) Huang Qiang April 1963 AVIC Deputy Party Secretary, Governor of Sichuan (2021-) Party Standing Committee member of Henan (2018-20); Party Standing Committee Member, Deputy Governor of Gansu (2014-18) Wang Yong December 1955 CASC, CASIC State Councilor (2013-); Member, 19th Central Committee Member of 18th Central Committee; SASAC (2003-08); CCP Central Organization Department (2000-03) Zhang Wenhong April 1975 CASIC Third Academy Standing Committee member of Anhui (2021-); Deputy Governor of Anhui (2020-) N/A Cheng Fubo September 1970 AVIC; COMAC Standing committee member of Shaanxi (2021-) Deputy governor of Shaanxi (2020-) N/A
The Political Logic Behind an “Aerospace Clique”
The re-emergence of an “aerospace clique” largely happened between the 18th and 19th Party Congress as Xi Jinping consolidated his absolute power within the CCP. What are the political assessments of this phenomenon?
First, the nuclear, space, and missile industries carry significant prestige in China, so the promotion of an “aerospace clique” helps boost the CCP’s legitimacy. Xi’s pursuit of the Chinese “space dream” has paid political dividends to those who worked to advance his agenda. Almost all of the current aerospace-politicians listed above either played direct or supervisory role in the development and implementation of key aerospace programs, such as China’s manned space, lunar exploration, or, in Zhang Qingwei’s case, the C919 “big aircraft” project, and for Zhang Hongwen, systems engineering leadership for the YJ-18. Political appointees from CASC tend to dominate. Yuan Jiajun, Zhang Qingwei, Ma Xingrui, and Xu Dazhe all served as senior executives of CASC prior to their career transitions into provincial politics.
Second, from an organizational point of view, transplanting aerospace technocrats into provincial government possibly helps reduce nepotism and corruption at the local level. Aerospace engineers and project managers have long worked in relatively shielded environment with fewer interactions with local politics and interest groups. Moreover, their broad exposure to how Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) function also brings them practical experience that is readily translatable to the management of industrial enterprises at the provincial level. Their defense industry experiences also make them perfect agents to facilitate and implement Xi Jinping’s MCF strategy at the provincial level, as Zhang Hongwen demonstrates.
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Third, the making of an “aerospace clique” might help reduce promotion pressure within the CASC and CASIC system. Although this is largely speculative, the high tempo, prevalent nepotism, and cut-throat competition within Chinese SOEs likely fuels discontent. Creating more pathways for aerospace engineers to advance in their career ladder may help with morale and stability of the workforce.
SOE executives moving into local politics is not a phenomenon unique to the aerospace industry. Shipbuilding conglomerate China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) has produced at least two deputy provincial governors in recent years. Both born in the 1960s, Guo Xiwen currently serves in Guizhou, while Tan Zuojun, formerly a deputy governor and party standing committee member of Liaoning, currently works as Hao Peng’s deputy at SASAC. Xie Weijiang, with a power and electric industry background, was appointed a deputy governor of Hunan in 2020.
The upcoming 20th Party Congress will serve as the ultimate test for the prowess of the nascent “aerospace clique” in CCP politics. For China, aerospace is both substance and symbol. It not only showcases marvelous technological advancements to earn the CCP respect and influence externally, but “aerospace spirit” – often associated with traits such as diligence, precision, and sacrifice – has become a political symbol in Xi Jinping’s politics. The upward mobility of aerospace-politicians in recent years provided useful insights into a possible, albeit limited, rejuvenation of technocracy in an era that increasingly prioritizes ideology over meritocracy. May a cool-headed and pragmatic “aerospace clique” prevail over the ideologues.
The author thanks Mark Stokes, Dennis Blasko, Ken Allen, and Lt. Col. Justin Settles for useful comments on previous drafts.