China's top fifty: the China power list

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In late 2004, the Chinese magazine Southern Weekend produced a list of China's top fifty public intellectuals (Nanfan Renwu Zhoukan). The list was modelled on ones in the west - like those of Forbes magazine, the Sunday Times and others - which rank people according to their influence and visibility. While China's wealthy had been listed before (on, for instance,, Southern Weekend's effort marked, to my knowledge, the first time that a general list had been produced. It contained economists, political scientists, writers, cultural theorists and philosophers. It included an economist who had been an early critic of Mao Zedong, along with political theorists who had first introduced western ideas in the 1980s, as well as those who were behind the "new left" trend in the 1990s. Six people on the list had already died.

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The list didn't remain in the public domain in China for very long. The edition of Southern Weekend in which it appeared was banned, and websites mentioning it were blocked. It appears that exercises like these, which attempt to quantify who has power in China and how they exercise that power, can still be sensitive.

The run-up to the seventeenth national congress of the Communist Party of China, to be held in the autumn of 2007, offers a good chance to revisit this idea - through a list somewhat broader than the 2004 one, and tighter in its criteria. What follows is the first Chatham House/openDemocracy China Power List, and, to the best of my knowledge, marks the first time that figures from all areas of life in modern China have been ranked.

This exercise has the limitations of all similar rankings. And because the question of who has real influence and power in China has been clouded for so long by lack of transparency and conjecture, it begins from a low base. But I still believe that it is very useful. At a time when China is becoming a more central influence, and where figures in China have impact throughout the world, I hope this will serve to educate readers about who holds power in China, why they have power and, more fundamentally, just who they are.

Also on China and democracy in openDemocracy:

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, "Taiwan’s dual election: democracy and national identity"
(19 March 2004)

Christine Loh, "Is the Chinese world discovering democracy?" (5 July 2004)

Agnes Chong, "Hong Kong marches for 'one person, one vote'"
(8 December 2005)

Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15 February 2006)

Isabel Hilton, "Beijing's media chill"
(15 February 2006)

Li Datong, "The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

Li Datong, "China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

Emily Lau, "Hong Kong’s long march to democracy"
(14 March 2007)

Li Datong, "Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning" (7 March 2007)

The list has two useful functions. First, the people on it really do have the power to affect the lives of citizens around the world, and we need to know much more about them. Second, the list will illuminate common points of power in modern China and in the outside world. Is China in 2007 as dominated by the influence of the wealthy as is the United Kingdom? Or does "purer" political influence - a good background, good political connections - matter more?

The criteria for inclusion on this list are simple. All the people on it must be alive. They do not necessarily have to be Chinese - thus the appearance of Microsoft boss Bill Gates, and, almost ex officio, United States president George W Bush. But there do have to be clear reasons for why they have influence in China. And that influence has to be in the People's Republic of China (PRC), not outside it, not even in such places as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, or in Taiwan. (While some prominent dissidents now based in the west are certainly influential, they have little impact in the PRC itself, and therefore are not included.)

The areas of activity embraced in the list cover the political, cultural, intellectual, social and commercial realms. This is no more than recognition of the complex interplay of forces in China. For each name, too, there must be clear evidence of their relevance in 2007 - not five, ten or twenty years earlier.

Some people will argue that this exercise is impossible, simply because "China is different to here, and things don't work like that over there." They would say we simply can't know who has influence, because we can't see them and never will be able to. This is, in some ways, a common position, and one it is impossible to wholly refute. I believe, however, that there is enough evidence to show areas of strong similarity between Chinese and western societies, and that utterly irreconcilable difference is unlikely.

And there will be the fascinating question of whether the names put forward in China and outside China will be the same. The names will illustrate whether there are fundamental differences between how outsiders and insiders regard influence and power in China. We won't know that till the exercise is complete. One immediate, and striking, conclusion - even from the highly provisional list I have offered below - is that only a small number of the individuals are women. It would be good to hear suggestions for which other women might figure on this list.

So here is an initial, very provisional ranking. I welcome suggestions, arguments, additions, counter-arguments. It is part of what Chatham House (officially, the Royal Institute of International Affairs) and openDemocracy together hope will become an ongoing project.

The China power list, April 2007:

[I would like to thank Frank Ching, Willy Lam and John Gittings for input into this list. Mistakes, and ranking decisions, are entirely my responsibility.]

Click here to view, vote and comment on the China Power List, 2007.