Growth Challenges

Socialist Scientists meet Social Scientists in China’s new Secret Seven

As a child I was enthralled by the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. Led by Peter, and together with Janet, Jack, Colin, George, Pam and Barbara, the seven would meet regularly to discuss local problems and adventures requiring their imagination and attention. Their headquarters was a garden shed, entry to which was protected by password and a badge marked SS.

In my adult life as a China watcher, a somewhat non-literary and yet indeed a secret seven now occupy my reading and imagination. Instead of Peter and friends however, this newly crowned seven (and newly seven, having been reduced from nine) is led by Xi Jinping, and followed by Li Keqiang, Zhang Deqiang, Zhang Gaoli, Wang Qishan, Liu Yunshan and Yu Zhengsheng.

As in Peter and his cohort before him, Xi’s adventures and prioritization in decision-making will indirectly impact my own state of being, though this time not just the realms of my imagination. Rather, Xi and his six fellow Politburo Standing Committee members will chart the way forward for China and increasingly the world for a decade forth.

An increasing amount is known of the challenges this Chinese ‘secret seven’ will face – an economy unsustainably skewed away from consumption and toward investment; a stressed environment; an ageing demography; ongoing calls for political reforms among them. Little is known however of the seven themselves, thanks to a very protective state-controlled media.

This piece looks specifically at their educational backgrounds, and finds an unusual density of social scientists, especially economists. In addition, just as China’s needs to master foreign tongues increases, this Politburo is home to a member fluent in each of Korean and English. They sit alongside two engineers – graduates of elite Tsinghua University and the Harbin Institute of Engineering, and the other three members of Sinology’s secret seven:

Xi Jinping, Party President, and President of the PRC: studied chemical engineering at elite Tsinghua University over 1975-1979. One report suggests he also obtained a doctoral degree in law from Tsinghua, part-time from 1998-2002.

Li Keqiang, Party Vice-President, and Premier of the PRC: entered Peking University in 1978 to study law as one of the famed “class of ’77’ – students sitting the first university entrance exam after the Cultural Revolution. Graduating in 1982, Li returned to Peking University in 1988 and over the tumultuous years to 1994 undertook part-time graduate studies toward a Master’s degree and consequential PhD degree in economics. He is reported to speak near-fluent English and to be charged with overseeing China’s economic affairs.

Zhang Dejiang: a native of Liaoning in China’s north and one of two provinces to share a border with North Korea, Zhang moved to the other of those provinces, Jilin province, in 1972 to study Korean language at Yanbian University. Yanbian University is located in the Jilin’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China, and is the only university in China that uses both Korean and Chinese as an official language of instruction. From 1978-1980, Zhang undertook an undergraduate degree in economics from North Korea’s Kim II Sung University. 

Zhang Gaoli: has a graduate degree from Xiamen University’s Department of Economics, with a major in planning and statistics, which he undertook from 1965-1970. He also undertook mid-career studies at Central Party School in 1990.

Wang Qishan: is a history graduate of Xi’an’s Northwest University, where he studied from 1973-1976. Early in his career he held research posts, including as a researcher and director at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (1979-82).

Liu Yunshan: Received a part-time undergraduate education from Jining Teachers College in Jining City, Inner Mongolia from 1964-1968. He also undertook part-time courses at the Central Party School from 1989-1992.

Yu Zhengsheng: Studied ballistic missile automatic control toward an undergraduate degree from the Department of Missile Engineering of China’s elite Harbin Institute of Technology (1963-68), and is the new Politburo Standing Committee’s most experienced engineer.

While the new line-up is said to comprise of members erring on the conservative rather than the reform side, in terms of the academic majors of this new Chinese secret seven, it appears that social scientists are now dominant. To what extent they are traditional or reformist-minded socialist scientists awaits to be seen.  



Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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