There is a recent pattern in American politics, in which Democratic politicians who succeeded in presidential elections were not born in northern states (e.g. Obama, Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Truman, and, if you must, Al Gore), while Republicans who won presidential elections — so, not counting Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment — have had very close ties to either Texas (the Bush’s, Eisenhower), California (Reagan, Nixon), or Florida (Bush, Trump).
To some degree, this pattern presumably reflects the old divide between the country’s Northeast and Southeast. The Democrats, who have their base of support in the Northeast, have had trouble in elections when they do not reach out to the South by selecting one of its native sons as their candidate. The Republicans, who have support in the Southeast, have had trouble winning when they do not secure the support of at least one of the country’s three largest states—California, Texas, or Florida.
Looking at the home regions of China’s leading politicans, it is fairly easy to discern a similar north-south divide. A large share of Chinese leaders were born in northern China. These include Beijing-born Xi Jinping (who’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was from Shaanxi) and Shandong-born Wang Qishan (a former mayor of Beijing, now Xi’s anti-corruption chief). At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China. Five of the seven were born in the north and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in in central China. Many politicians of the past, such as Zhao Zhiyang or Hua Gaofeng, have also hailed from the north.
Indeed, as far as I can tell, Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person in thirty years to be born outside of northern or central China and have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently serving in the Party’s 25-member Politburo born outside north or central China.
Central China — which, somewhat confusingly, is sometimes considered to be part of Southern China, though it is located far north of the ‘deep south’ regions like Guangdong or Yunnan — has also produced its fair share of notable figures, such as Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Li Keqiang, Zhou Yongkang, and Wu Bangguo, all of whom were born in Jiangsu or Anhui. There seems, in fact, to be a very recent trend in which, when the General Secretary is from northern China, then the Premier is from central China, and vice versa. So, for example, there is now the pairing of Xi and Li (born in Beijing and Anhui, respectively), and before them the pair Hu and Wen (Jiangsu and Tianjin).
Some may interpret this as an implicit power-sharing arrangement between central China and northern China. While at present most leaders come from northern China, this was not the case a generation ago. Jiang Zemin (born in southern Jiangsu), Zhu Rongji (northern Hunan), Li Peng (Shanghai), Hu Yaobang (northern Hunan), Li Xiannian (Hubei), and Yang Shangkun (Chongqing) were not from the north. Of the “Eight Elders” of the 1990s and 1980s, six were born in central or south-central China; the other two in Shanxi. Even Xi Jinping, a northerner, spent his political career in central China or south-central China, in Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai.
The pattern, if it does actually exist, does not appear to be unique to civilian political leaders. Among today’s 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born within northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. None are from the deep south.
Meanwhile, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 were born in the deep south*. (*Here, please correct me if I am wrong. I do not speak Mandarin, and finding this information was difficult. Bo Zhiyue’s work was useful and worth reading, but has a different emphasis). No person born in the vast southeast province Guangdong, or the vast south/centre- west province Sichuan, holds one of the 43 positions in either the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission, at or around the highest levels of China’s political hierarchy.
The Sichuan basin has also witnessed a spate of high-profile political take-downs in recent years, notably of Chongqing’ party leader Bo Xilai and, later, of Sichuan province’s former chief Zhou Yongkang. Now Chongqing’s party chief is Sun Zhengcai, who is the youngest member of the current 18th Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Jilin. Guangdong’s party chief, Hu Chunhua, is the second youngest member of the Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Inner Mongolia, after having spent most of his career working in Tibet.
This may be significant, in both cases. Southern China, as well as other areas that might perhaps also be considered to be ‘peripheral’ (including Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and even Jilin), appear often to have been used as something of a stepping-stone to power by young, up-and-coming leaders like Hu and Sun. The idea is—presumably—that they will do whatever it takes to secure the Party’s interests in those regions, given they have such bright future careers to lose if they fail to do so. Past instances may include Hu Jintao serving in Guizhou and Tibet, Zhao Zhiyang in Guangdong, or maybe even Xi in Fujian. In the case of Hu and Sun in Guangdong and the Sichuan basin, they might be there simply because of those regions’ large sizes and significance—but perhaps they are also there to preempt dissent.
…And yet. Much of China’s economic output is generated in areas from around Shanghai south to Guangdong; particularly if you include Taiwan as being part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and more than 25% of its exports. This creates, perhaps, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its top commercial engine.
Americans might be tempted to call this state of affairs “taxation without representation”. While I will not stoop to doing so, I would however be very interested in hearing feedback about these patterns from any of the billion or so people who are more knowledgable on Chinese affairs than I am.