The principle of “revolving doors” is a common practice in the American political establishment, designed to facilitate the flow of exchange of ideas and experience between the government and the academic community. According to the principle of” revolving doors”, in US think tanks, employees are often sent to work for the civil service, while former government officials take their place.

Despite the fact that the term “revolving doors” is quite new for China, however, this practice is not completely alien to the Chinese leadership. The “revolving doors” in China mostly work only in one direction, this is when retired high-ranking party workers move to analytical centers, while the reverse transition is still rare.

Nevertheless, the recent statements and actions of Chinese President Xi Jinping suggest that a full-fledged rotation on the principle of” revolving doors ” will become the main focus of Chinese think tanks in the near future.

Over the past two years, Xi has regularly stressed the need to strengthen and develop Chinese think tanks. In April 2016, he made a speech in which he clearly stated his readiness to use think tanks as a new channel for recruiting personnel to the ranks of the party leadership.

Xi outlined his vision of “agglomerating talent into research institutes” and “breaking institutional boundaries” in order to ensure the exchange of talent between the private sector, government and think tanks. He clearly noted that the “revolving door” mechanism often observed in foreign analytical centers was an asset that China should strive to adopt.

Over the past decade or so, a number of retired leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have joined well-known Chinese research institutes and think tanks.

Zheng Bijiang, a former vice-president of the Central Party School, served as chairman of the China Reform Forum, a think tank based in Beijing aimed at studying domestic and international issues.

Tang Jiaxuan, a former member of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, became the chairman of the China National Association for International Studies (CNAMI), later he joined the leadership of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCMEO).

Former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing worked as a dean at two universities: the School of Public Administration. Zhou Enlai at Nankai University and the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy in Beijing. Zeng Peiyan, after retiring from the post of vice Premier of the State Council in 2008, became the chairman of the KCMEO.

Similarly, since his retirement in 2012, former State Adviser of the People’s Republic of China Dai Bing has become chairman of the Board of Jinan University and Honorary Dean of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. These are just some of the numerous examples of the transition of former CPC leaders to influential analytical centers of the country.

Movement in the opposite direction, from think tanks to the government, is quite rare. Significant experience in leadership positions at the provincial and local levels has long been a prerequisite for appointment to the top party leadership. However, departing from the norms of the CPC, President Xi began to take into account the experience in think tanks when promoting personnel to his inner circle.

It is noteworthy that two of Xi’s most valuable aides have moved up the career ladder through government think tanks, and now they are being trained for key positions in the party. Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo and director of the Center for Political Studies of the CPC Central Committee, who also served as an adviser to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, first rose in academia before achieving significant success at the Center for Political Studies.

Liu He, the head of the Central Steering Group on Economic Issues of the CPC Central Committee, before taking up his current position, worked at the State Information Center and the Development Research Center under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. Wang can further move up the political ladder by becoming a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the 19th convocation.

Liu, in turn, is a candidate for the post of future deputy prime Minister and a member of the Politburo. It is noteworthy that both Wang and Liu entered Xi’s inner circle due to their abilities as thinkers and advisers; neither of them had previously held a leadership position at the local or regional levels.

These cases show that Xi has opened the door for think tank scientists, inviting them to join the supreme party leadership. Xi is also opening the door for returning talents who have been educated abroad to join the party leadership.

In August 2016, the party issued a directive that called on members of the Association of Scientists who returned from Europe and the United States to join the party. A large number of Western-trained (Chinese) scientists work in Chinese research institutes and think tanks, especially in such areas as economics and international relations.

For example, back in 2005, the entire faculty of the Chinese Center for Economic Research at Peking University, a total of 24 scientists with foreign education. Other think tanks, such as the Forum of China’s 50 Leading Economists and the Forum of China’s 40 Leading Financiers, also boast a high representation of experts who have returned from abroad.

Since foreign-trained cadres predominate in the lists of employees of analytical centers, Xi’s emphasis on recruiting such candidates carries the potential for future regulation of the system in which “think tanks” will help transfer scientists to the party leadership.

The composition of Xi’s inner circle shows his confidence in the ability of cadres with foreign education to succeed in the leadership of the party. Xi Jinping’s university roommate, Chen Xi, was a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the early 1990s, currently he is the deputy director of the Organizational Department of the CPC Central Committee, responsible for solving Xi Jinping’s personnel issues.

Fan Xinghai, vice Chairman of the China Securities Market Regulatory Commission, received his doctorate from Stanford and is currently playing an important role in organizing China’s financial reform.

The aforementioned Wang Huning and Liu He both studied and lived abroad: Wang was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988-1989; Liu received a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. These are not isolated examples.

There is a clear growing trend in the representation of “returnees” at high levels of the party leadership. Thus, they occupied 14.6% of the composition of the CPC Central Committee of the 18th Convocation, formed in 2012, an increase of 4 and 8.2 percentage points compared to the composition of the 17th convocation in 2007 and the 16th convocation in 2002, respectively.

Despite the fact that the total number of such cadres remains small, however, as the party will attract cadres with foreign education to its ranks, “think tanks” will naturally become the main channel through which groups of promising politically oriented leaders will appear. In other words, think tanks will become a bridge between cadres trained abroad and the Party.

The career trajectory of the party secretary of Henan Province Xie Fuzhan shows to what extent this phenomenon is already happening. Xie was a visiting scholar at Princeton University in 1991-1992. Since then, he has managed to complete the executive training program at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Cambridge Judge Business School in the 2000s.

He held senior positions at the Development Research Center (under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China) and the National Bureau of Statistics, and in 2008 became the director of the Center for Policy Studies under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. In general, his career in the” think tanks ” spans three decades. In 2013, he was appointed governor of Henan Province. In 2016, he was promoted to party secretary of Henan Province, which in turn makes him a candidate for a seat in the new Politburo.

The mechanism of “revolving doors” with the participation of Chinese “think tanks” is still at the nascent stage. Xi’s call to increase the exchange of talents between think tanks and the government, as well as his efforts to attract cadres with foreign education to the party, laid the foundation for analytical centers to become a new channel for stimulating and attracting new cadres to the party leadership.

The impact of this development requires further study: This may work in Xi’s favor, allowing him to expand political support and reconcile his relations with the Chinese intelligentsia, which has been critical of his rule; or it may create tensions between leaders trained at home and educated abroad.

What is beyond doubt, according to the authors from the Brookings Institution, is that the new principle of “revolving doors” will bring with it different points of view and people with different “backgrounds” to the participants of the 19th CPC Congress and beyond, opening up new opportunities and challenges for China both in domestic and international affairs.


Cheng Li, Director of the Center for the Study of China. John L. Thornton at the Brookings Institution;

Lucy Xu, Senior Researcher and Coordinator for External Relations at the Center for the Study of China. John L. Thornton at the Brookings Institution.


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