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Who is shaping China in the 21st century? Which individuals are the most powerful and influential in a country that itself is becoming more powerful and influential?

openDemocracy and the London-based international-relations institution Chatham House would like to know what you think. Recognising the complex interplay of forces in China today, Kerry Brown of Chatham House has compiled the first-ever list of the top fifty most influential people, both inside and outside the People's Republic of China. He also has given them an initial, very provisional, ranking. We invite you to argue with us about it all. Who's been left out? Who doesn't even belong on the list? Read what Brown has to say about this novel exercise and the criteria being used, peruse the mini-biographies(please note you must sign up with the forum to post a comment) of those he's selected, discuss the list and then cast your vote for the one person you believe is leading the way in shaping a new China.

"Like it or not," says Brown, "some of the names on this list should be household names outside of China. They really do have the power to affect the lives of citizens around the world, and we need to know much more about them." When the exercise is complete, we'll see if there are fundamental differences between how outsiders and insiders regard influence and power in China. openDemocracy and Chatham House believe this ongoing project (as we hope it will become) will prove interesting, useful and educational.

Who's who
Hu Jintao, politician, 66.

President, Communist Party secretary and chair of the central military commission. Born in Jixi, Anhui province. Former Communist Youth League leader, party secretary in Tibet at the time of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing, and the chosen successor (by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping) to Jiang Zemin. Hu is as close as anyone is likely to get to holding the full pack of power cards in China. His anonymity and low profile outside the People's Republic matter little. In terms of raw political influence, most paths lead to his door.

Wen Jiabao, politician, 66. Premier.

Born in the Beichen district of Tianjin municipality. One of the great survivors of the contemporary Chinese political scene, Wen was private secretary to party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was toppled as a result of the 1989 disturbances. This potentially devastating connection was to have little effect on Wen's career. With Hu, he looks after a massive constituency of party members, rural dwellers and other social groups.

Li Ka-shing, Businessman, 78.

Born in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, Li is among the world's top-ten richest business people. He earned his wealth in Hong Kong, originally in plastic flowers, then through the conglomerate Hutchinson Whampao Ltd, which is active in infrastructure, property, telecommunications and other areas. Li has immense influence, both through his investments in China (including the Oriental Plaza complex in Beijing) and his philanthropy. Regarded by some as the most powerful man in Asia.

George W Bush, Politician, 60.

Born in the US city of New Haven, Connecticut. Almost ex officio, the American president is perhaps the only foreign politician likely to have any effect or influence on China, a recognition that the US-China relationship is one of the key relationships (if not the key one) of the present century.

Chen Shui-bian, politician, 57.

Born in Guantian, Tainan county, Taiwan, Chen has been president of Taiwan since 2001. He has the power to pitch China into internal conflict by any statement or action that could be construed as an outright bid for Taiwan's independence. Not perhaps as reviled as his predecessor, Li Teng-hui, Chen has been mired in domestic political problems of his own - but the shadow of Taiwan and its separation from China casts itself across all areas of life, and has the greatest potential to bring China in face-to-face confrontation with the rest of the world.

Zeng Qinghong, politician, 67.

Born in Ji'an, Jiangxi province, he is a politburo member and president of the Central Party School. Immensely influential under Jiang Zemin, Zeng still pulls some levers and remains a force to be reckoned with, although he may be a fading star. As former prime minister Zhu Rongji proved, becoming quiet sometimes can be a good way of staying on track for long-term power.

Wu Bangguo, politician, 65.

Born in Feidong county, Anhui province. Head of the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament, Wu is one of the slickest and most capable of political performers, and has avoided any hint of corruption.

Wu Yi, politician, 68.

Vice premier. Born in Hebei province, Wuhan is the sole woman in the top leadership of China, Wu possesses formidable energy, hard-eyed realism, influence over trade policy and a stellar background. She is not hampered by the "princeling" burden, like Bo Xilai, the son of a member of the party elite and her deputy as minister of commerce. Wu's political capital is hers and hers alone.

Bill Gates, businessman and philanthropist, 51.

Born in the US city of Seattle, Washington. Admired for his immense wealth, vision and social engagement with China through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he is without doubt one of the most influential foreigners within China, and is granted access at the highest level. His 1996 autobiography was translated early into Chinese, and reached a huge audience. Gates is one of the few foreigners known throughout China.

Larry Yung Chi Kin, businessman, 65.

Born in Shanghai. Ranked China's richest person in the Forbes 2005 list, Yung (also known as Rong Zhijian) is the son of former vice president Rong Yiren. As head of the CITIC Pacific conglomerate, he has major stakes in Cathay Pacific Airways and Wal-Mart Stores Inc's operations in China.

Zhang Yimou, film director, 56.

Born in Xi'an, in Shaanxi province. Frequently criticised within China for producing films that are palatable only to western tastes. This sits oddly with the general, wide distribution of his recent works, most significantly Hero in 2002. Zhang has been in and out of the critical doghouse several times, but that hasn't prevented him from being tapped to do the opening direction for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing -- a moment laden with political and cultural import which, in contemporary China, perhaps only he could fully rise to.

Jackie Chan, actor, 52.

Hong Kong-born Chan's immense success abroad has not impacted on his popular following in China. His films have a huge following, and he is seen as filling the space left by Bruce Lee. He also exercises influence through his charitable and philanthropic work.

Cao Gangchuan, Soldier, 71.

Born in Wugang, Henan province. Minister of national defence. China's military has been separated from its past commercial operations (such as real estate), and its political role has been rationalised and limited. Still, as Mao intended, the People's Liberation Army remains the great trump card, the jewel in the political crown. As vice-chair of the central military commission and a politburo member, Cao, a general, occupies an immensely powerful and influential area.

Li Rui, administrator.

Mao's former secretary from the 1950s. Now more than 90 years old, Li still speaks out, most importantly against the Three Gorges Dam project. The project -- cited by former premier Li Peng as his significant contribution to China's development -- met a great deal of opposition from economists and ecologists in the 1990s. Li Rui figures on this list as an open acknowledgement that China's recent past still has a massive impact on its current and future development.

Dalai Lama, religious leader, 71.

Born Lhamo Dhondup in Taktser, Amdo, Tibet. Spiritual leader of four million Tibetans and of a Buddhist religious grouping that embraces 100 million members -- 30 million more than the China's Communist Party. Exiled since 1959, the fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is a figure of great moral and spiritual stature, and head of state of Tibet's government-in-exile. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Hu Shuli, journalist.

Founder of the immensely influential Caijing (Finance) magazine, Hu figures on the 2004 Southern Weekend list of Chinese intellectuals. Her work has pushed the boundaries for local journalists, leading to genuine attempts to expose corruption and malpractice.

Luo Gan, politician, 71.

Born in Ji'nan, Shandong province. A member of the politburo, the state council and the party central committee, Luo will play a key role in personnel decisions in the coming months, up to and beyond the party congress in the autumn of 2007.

Wang Huning, academic, 51.

Born in Shanghai. Director of the party's central policy research office, one internet entry for him says he sits outside politburo meetings if the body needs an expert opinion. Very influential academic from Shanghai's elite Fudan University before being co-opted into government. Produced a series of good articles on various issues in Fudan Journal in the 1980s and '90s.

Xiao Yang, lawyer, 68.

Born in Heyuan, Guangdong province. President of the Supreme People's Court, a position he has held for a decade; Xiao is responsible for reform and improvements in the critical area of China's legal system.

Wang Shuo, writer, 48.

Born in Nanjing. Author of many "hooligan" novels throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Wang may not be at the cutting edge of the "chick lit" that has burgeoned in contemporary China, but his works have longevity and an impact that gives them genuine significance. Many of his novels have been made into popular films.

Jack Ma Yun, businessman, 42.

Born in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and educated abroad. Founder of Alibaba.com. Ma is not the wealthiest Chinese entrepreneur, but he is active in an area of great importance - the internet - and, through media appearances, speaks to a huge constituency inspired by his work. Ma also edges beyond the other entrepreneurs crowding the stage, because he remains resolutely apolitical, avoiding the fatal pitfalls of those who attempt to translate their economic power into political power. A key partner of Yahoo! in China.

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, journalists, 65 and 44, respectively.

Husband and wife team. Chen was born in Fengbu, Anhui province (where they are now based) and wife Wu in Liling, Hunan province. Sale of their published 2002 Survey of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha) -- exposing the pitiful conditions of the country's rural people in the twenty-first century -- were subsequently halted, but it went on sell millions of contraband copies.

Jiang Zemin, politician, 80.

Born in Yangzhou, Jiangzu province. Former president, retired from all posts in 2003, but still influential. Jiang is recognised as the man who steered China through the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square events of 1989 towards continuing economic reform, rather than turning inward again.

Yao Ming, athlete, 26.

Born in Shanghai, the 2.29-metre-tall basketball player is the most visible example of the very few Chinese people who have done exceedingly well in the US and remain popular in China. A player for the Houston Rockets, Yao has fronted a host of advertising campaigns in China, and is regarded as an ambassador for his country.

Liu Mingkang, banker, 60.

Born in Fuzhou, Fujian province. Chairman of the board of directors of the People's Bank of China and chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, British-educated Liu, is responsible for financial development - an area that is critical to China's development.

Liu Di, blogger, 25.

Born in Beijing. Nicknamed the "stainless-steel mouse" (after her screen name), and jailed for more than a year (but not charged) for her hard-hitting online criticisms of the Communist Party. Liu is listed here in recognition of the actual, and potential, power of the internet in China, which now has as many as 200 million users.

Wang Yongzhi, scientist, 74.

Born in Changtu county, Liaoning province. A key player in the Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6 manned-spacecraft projects, which were viewed as critical to China's national self-esteem. Wang is highly representative of the Chinese desire to prove that the country is world-class in an area of high-visibility technical accomplishment.

Cui Jian, singer, 45.

Beijing-born, he was one of the earliest and most influential pop singers in mainland China, and a pioneer of "indigenous" but western-influenced rock music. He reached the height of his popularity in 1989, when "Nothing But My Name" (Yi Wu Suo You) became an anthem for the pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Cui Jian frequently appeared with student protesters, and after the government crackdown went into hiding briefly in the provinces. He still performs throughout China.

Zheng Bijian, academic, 75.

Born in Fushun, Sichuan province. Zheng's declaration in 2004 about the "peaceful rise of China" had huge impact both inside and outside China; he is the closest thing the country now has to an ideologist-in-chief.

Lai Changxing, businessman and fugitive, 49.

A native of Jinjiang, Fujian province, Lai is accused of being the mastermind of the largest smuggling ring in PRC history. Regarded as China's most-wanted fugitive, he fled to Canada in 1999, where he has sought refugee status, unsuccessfully. Now in custody in Canada, he may be repatriated. Although he is abroad, Lai overshadows every area of public life in China infected by corruption; his return would be significant for many others at various levels of authority who fear investigation.

Pan Yue, politician, 47.

Born in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Deputy director of the State Environment Protection Agency, Pan has built up a profile within and outside China by his hard-eyed assessment of the immense damage China's last three decades of economic development has done to the country's environment.

Wang Shaoguang, academic, 53.

Born in Wuhan, Hubei province. A professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he runs a good website. Wang is considered one of the most influential academics on Hu Jintao and current policy-thinkers.

Li Keqiang, politician, 51.

Born in Dingyuan, Anhai province. Party secretary of Liaoning province, and in the frame for possible "fifth-generation" leadership promotion, maybe even to the top position. Li has impeccable party credentials, and ticks all the right boxes.

Wang Hui, journalist, 48.

Born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. Editor of Dushu (Reading), the main platform for intellectual exchange and dialogue in China, which reaches an audience of tens of millions.

Gao Xingjian, writer, 67.

Born in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province. Winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 2000. An émigré writer since the 1980s, Gao is based in Paris and is a French citizen.

Wu Jinglian, academic, 77.

A controversial economist who has been highly critical of China's stock-market system. Wu has been considered one of the most influential economic figures in China.

Zhao Yan, journalist, 45.

Born in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. The New York Times researcher in Beijing was charged with revealing state secrets after the newspaper correctly predicted in 2004 the retirement of Jiang Zemin as head of the central military commission. In a closed-door trial in 2006, Zhao was found guilty of fraud, but not of revealing state secrets, and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Jay Chou, singer, 28.

Born in Taiwan, he represents the powerful cultural links between Taiwan and the PRC. His music combines Chinese and western styles, producing songs that fuse musical genres. Chou is the latest in a long line of figures who have reached out to a huge mainland youth audience.

Li Jinhua, official, 64.

A native of Rudong, Jiangsu province, he became the auditor general of the National Audit Office of China in 1998. He was chosen "person of the year" by Southern Weekend in 2004 for his leading role in the "audit storm" of 2003, when -- for the first time - the audit office disclosed severe irregularities by ministries and government agencies.

Zhang Yin, businesswoman, 50.

Born in Heilongjiang province. Zhang (also known as Cheung Yan) is the founder of the Nine Dragons paper-recycling company, and worth an estimated $3.6 billion. She is, according to the Hurun Report -- the leading media platform for China's wealthiest individuals -- the richest person in China.

Wang Jiawei (Wong Kar Wai), film director, 49.

Born in Shanghai, but grew up in Hong Kong. He is one of the most celebrated Chinese film directors and his films have won numerous international awards. In 2006, the director served as president of the feature films jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hu Angang, academic, 54.

Born in Anshan city, Liaoning province. Director and professor at the Centre for China Study, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University. An economic advisor to the government, Hu is one of the key people behind the initiative to address unequal development and economic growth in different parts of China.

Li Yinghe, academic, 55.

Born in Beijing. Publisher of a groundbreaking article from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2002 on homosexuality in China. Li is a sociologist, and her work has led to a gradual acceptance of homosexuality within China.

Li Yuchun, singer, 23.

Born in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Winner of the Pop Idol-inspired Super Girl singing competition on Chinese television in 2005, which was watched by a huge audience. Li has become a role model for the increasingly powerful constituency of young Chinese women.

Xi Jinping, politician, 53.

A native of Fuping, Shaanxi province. Recently appointed party secretary for Shanghai, Xi had been secretary of Zhejiang province, one of China's wealthiest areas. Xi has been tipped to play a key role in the post-Hu and post-Wen leadership.

Chen Guangcheng, activist, 36.

Born in Linyi, Shadong province. A blind civil-rights activist based in Shandong, Chen was imprisoned for four years in 2006 for protesting against forced sterilisations. He appealed his case successfully, but was convicted again at a hasty second trial in January 2007. Chen was found guilty on the same charges and given an identical prison sentence.

Chen Kaige, film director, 54.

Born in Beijing. From the same "fifth generation" as Zhang Yimou, and best known in the west for Farewell My Concubine in 1993. Chen is regarded as more authentically high-brow than other Chinese directors, and one who does not make films solely for foreign markets.

Robin Li (Li Yanhong), businessman, 38.

Born in Yangquan, Shanxi province. Co-founder of Baidu, the Chinese version of Google, Li is among China's wealthiest people. He is living proof that a western invention, the internet, can be adapted and controlled by domestic Chinese players.

Li Hongzhi, religious leader, 54.

Born in Gongzhuling, Jilin province. Head of the controversial Falun Gong movement, which is now considered much less potent a force than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although he is now based in North America, Li - whom many consider a cult leader -- still maintains a powerful covert following in China.

Zhong Nanshan, scientist, 71.

Born in Fuzhou, Fujian province. A doctor based in Guangdong province, Zhong became prominent during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), when he was highly critical of the government's handling of the medical crisis. He has since become one of the most respected commentators on public health in China.


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