This is the eighth in a series of reports about the members the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These men are Chinese President Xi Jinping's closest advisors and the most powerful figures in China.
Ding Xuexiang, the focus of this report, who was elected to the Standing Committee at the recent 20th National People's Congress, is the sixth-highest ranking politician in the CCP. Since 2017, Ding has served as the director of the CCP Central Committee's General Office, functionally Xi Jinping's chief of staff, with access to him day and night – and hence with closer proximity to him than even the most senior CCP officials.
A Xi Jinping loyalist, Ding has filled administrative and secretarial roles for Xi for many years. At age 60, he is the youngest member of the Standing Committee, and it is expected that he will be appointed vice premier of the State Council in March 2023.
For the previous reports in this series, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1653 about intellectual Wang Huning, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1656 about Li Zhanshu, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1658 about Li Keqiang, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1660 about Wang Yang, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1665 about Zhao Leji, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1667 about Li Qiang, and MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1668 about Cai Qi. Note that Li Zhanshu, Li Keqiang, and Wang Yang were members of the previous Standing Committee, and were voted out of their positions last month at the 20th National People's Congress. Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, Li Qiang, and Cai Qi are current Standing Committee members.
Ding Xuexiang was born in Nantong, Jiangsu Province on September 13, 1962. Like Xi Jinping, he has an engineering background. He graduated from the Northeast Heavy Machinery Institute (now Yanshan University) with a bachelor's degree in Forging Process and Equipment, and later earned an on-the-job postgraduate degree in Administration and a master's degree in Science from Fudan University's School of Management. He is a professor-level senior engineer.
After graduating in 1982, he was assigned to the Shanghai Institute of Materials under China's Ministry of Machinery Industry. He was promoted to deputy director of the Institute in 1994, and two years later he became the Institute's director.
When he first entered politics in 1999, Ding served as deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Commission. He subsequently served in several party and government offices in Shanghai. In 2001, he was Deputy Secretary of the CCP Shanghai Zhabei District Committee, and later became district chief. In 2004, he began serving as Deputy Director of the Organization Department of the CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee and Director of Shanghai Personnel Bureau.
In 2006, Ding Xuexiang became deputy Secretary-General of the CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee and director of the General Office of the CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee. He was in charge of the confidential affairs of the organs directly under the CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee and he directly served Han Zheng, who was then acting secretary of the CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee and mayor of Shanghai.
The following year, Ding, then 45, became secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Committee, and shortly afterwards he was promoted to the Municipal Committee's Standing Committee, in his first vice-ministerial position. During this time, he served as Xi Jinping's personal political secretary. While he only held this position for seven months before Xi was promoted, he deeply impressed Xi with his administrative and organizational skills. This is one of the reasons that in 2013, shortly after Xi became CCP Secretary-General and after being elected an alternate member of the CCP Central Committee, Ding was transferred to Beijing as deputy director of CCP the Central Committee's General Office. Ding personally accompanied Xi Jinping during his 2015 visit to the United States.
In 2017, Ding was elected a full member of the CCP Central Committee's Political Bureau, officially becoming a state-level leader. Also that year, he was promoted the director of the Central Committee's General Office, becoming Xi Jinping's personal chief of staff.
A Diligent Secretary
While Xi Jinping's first position after graduating from university was as a secretary to Geng Biao, a friend of his father's who was at the time a member of the CCP Central Committee's Political Bureau, it is said that he performed poorly as a secretary and thus learned to value skilled administrators. This may be one of the reasons that Xi has relied on and guaranteed the promotion of Ding, who has a reputation for working methodically and consistently.
In June 2008, when he was secretary general of the Shanghai Municipal Committee of the CCP, Ding published an article about the importance of the CCP's general offices in the magazine Secretary Work. Ding emphasized in his piece that every secretary should think what a leader thinks, should respond to a leader's needs urgently to serve the leader well, and should be "loyal and reliable" to the leader.
Because of his great usefulness to Xi Jinping, it is no surprise that Ding was promoted to the Standing Committee, and throughout the years he has had greater access to Xi than almost any other Xi aide. It is also important to note that since he is a secretary and not a political leader, Ding Xuexiang poses no political threat to Xi.
Xi's "Chief of Staff With a Knife"
The General Office, which Ding directs, performs several key functions, including providing administrative and secretarial support to the Central Committee, coordinating between central and local government, and providing for the security, medical care, and life services of the CCP's officials.
Since the General Office is in close proximity to CCP officials in order to provide them with security and medical care, it is in an optimal position from which to monitor them as well. Hence, as General Office director, Ding has been able to directly monitor party officials for Xi's benefit.
Also, because the General Office is responsible for the medical care of CCP officials, its director can, under extreme circumstances, allow Xi Jinping to decide whether other senior party leader live or die. For this reason, Ding has been referred to as Xi's "chief of staff with a knife".
*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.