Collective Learning at the Political Bureau -- Good Learners Make Good Leaders

With the rapid pace of technological advancement in this age, the saying “Never too old to learn” rings truer than ever when those who don't keep learning for life are quickly left in the dust on the highway of progress. This saying applies as much to a ruling party or even a nation as it does to individuals. In an increasingly complex global environment, maintaining a lifelong capacity for learning, being able to assess situations accurately and drawing from others’ experience before taking action are critical skills for a ruling party tasked with leading the continued development of a nation.

At 1:30 pm on December 26, 2002, a black sedan car carrying two passengers, a tall young man and a white-haired old man, drove into Zhongnanhai (中南海) through its west gate as directed by guards at the complex. The younger of the duo, Zhou Yezhong (周葉中) was 39 years old and represented the legal sector’s new generation; the elder, Professor Xu Chongde (許崇德) was a 73-year-old leading constitutional law expert teaching at Renmin University of China (中國人民大學) who had taken part in the drafting of the Constitution of 1954 (五四憲法) (China’s first Constitution), as well as the Constitution of 1982 (the version of  the Constitution still in current use).

“Good day, teachers!”

Some 15 minutes later, Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) vice premier of China, greeted the duo warmly at Zhongnanhai’s Huairen Hall (懷仁堂) even as he was approaching from afar.

Teachers? How could that be?

This marked the beginning of a special lesson in which Xu Chongde and Zhou Yezhong lectured to a class comprising all nine members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and 100 other party leaders. What’s more, it also started the institutionalization of collective learning at the Political Bureau, one of the most fascinating phenomena in the course of political development in China.

Professor Xu Chongde at a seminar commemorating the 14th anniversary of the promulgation of the Basic Law hosted in Hong Kong in 2004 (Source: China News Service, 中新社)


How the system came about

Traditionally, the Communist Party of China attaches much importance to learning, particularly collective learning. As early as the Yan’an period (延安時期) the party central committee set up a central study group (中央學習組) and a senior cadres’ study group (高級學習組) to guide cadres in the study of Marxism. However, the mechanisms of learning back then were not yet fully developed.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came the need to enact a constitution, a novelty to the Party at that time. To ensure that China would pass a legally sound constitution, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) deemed it imperative to refer to other countries’ constitutions, and urged senior cadres to learn about them.

Between the end of 1959 and early 1960, state leaders like Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇) and Zhou Enlai (周恩來) acted separately to form their own study groups on economic issues. Economists were invited to join in the discussions. The practice, which embodied many features of collective learning, could be viewed as a precursor of the current-day collective learning system.

Shortly after reform and opening-up, when China still had a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) talked about the importance of learning on many occasions. He called on everyone to strive to learn in a “serious, diligent and savvy” manner. (He once pointed out, “To deal with ever-emerging new problems, the Party must keep learning, our cadres must keep learning and we Chinese people must keep learning. No one is allowed to get comfortable with being a laggard; those who lag behind will surely lose out in the competition.”) The initiative was spearheaded by the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee (中央書記處) which hosted many lectures on technology and legal knowledge. This became the early model of the Political Bureau’s collective learning system.

In 1980, the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee invited scientists to give lectures to leaders on the latest trends and usage of modern technologies in fields such as agriculture, energy, population and computer science. The first lecture, given by renowned scientist Qian Sanqiang (錢三強) delineated the various phases of development in science and technology and their social implications. It was the first time in the history of the Party that a lesson was taught by a top expert to a class of state leaders.

In 1986, as part of the campaign for the popularization of legal knowledge, the Central Committee invited Professor Sun Guohua (孫國華) of Renmin University of China (中國人民大學) to give a lecture on basic legal theories (in a format similar to the lecture on technology) to state leaders including members of the Political Bureau.

Lessons on the Chinese Constitution at an elementary school in Chengdu (Source: China News Service)


In 1994, the Central Committee resumed the lecture series on the legal system after an eight-year hiatus. By 2002, a total of 12 lectures on the legal system -- averaging around one or two collective learning sessions per year - had been held and attended by most members of the Political Bureau. They represented the central leadership’s first steps towards the institutionalization of collective learning.

The lecture delivered by Professor Xu Chongde and Zhou Yezhong on December 26, 2002 was not only the first lesson for the 16th CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, it was also a milestone marking the establishment of a formal system for collective learning. In the five years that followed, the Political Bureau held a total of 44 collective learning sessions, which averaged around one lesson per 40 days. Its successor, the 17th CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, held 33 collective learning sessions. Together, these sessions involved a total of 147 Chinese mainland experts who shared their knowledge on a range of topics covering science and technology, legal theory, economics, culture, military affairs, diplomacy, the environment, and so on.

Following the 18th National Congress of the CPC, the collective learning system has continued to serve the Political Bureaus of the 18th and 19th CPC Central Committees. The former held a total of 43 collective learning sessions and the latter (which commenced in October 2017) has held 15 sessions as of the end of June in 2019. This shows that the collective learning system is maturing into a formal system in contemporary Chinese politics, and collective learning is becoming a routine activity for the Chinese leadership.


Why is learning important?

“Never too old to learn” is a well-known adage and one that is particularly relevant in this age of unprecedented technological progress, when one can only keep one’s edge by being open to new knowledge throughout life. The imperative is even more pressing for a ruling party, or on an even grander scale, a nation.  Rulers must rise to the challenges posed by ever-changing global and national situations and the plethora of new problems cropping up at every turn.

Adaptation is the key to success in a complex and rapidly changing environment, and the ability to do so stems from an aptitude and respect for learning. Maintaining a lifelong aptitude for learning, being able to assess situations and possess the talent to draw on others’ experiences and apply them appropriately are vital skills, especially for  a ruling party that is striving to promote national development. Understanding the importance of learning, is, therefore, a basic requirement for a party in power to be successful.

The goals and visions of learning were made clear back when the first collective learning session of the 16th CPC Central Committee was held. As Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) put it, the Central Committee was promoting learning among its cadres to augment their skills in governance, national development, and public service. In other words, the purpose of learning is to better serve the people. With the help of institutionalized learning the ruling party can make informed, scientifically-sound decisions, improve on the ability to govern, deliver quality service and continue to support reform and innovation.


What do the lessons teach?

At the first collective learning session, Hu Jintao made it clear that “Learning must relate closely to the three requirements of meeting the Party and nation’s development needs, understanding and addressing problems arising from reform and development, and working more effectively for the greater good.”

To these ends, the topics for collective learning are closely related to and address important current social issues and emerging issues and challenges. They also delve into economics, rule of law, party construction work, social and livelihood issues, environmental protection and other topics related to China’s long-term development. The topics are strongly relevant as well as forward looking.  

Taking the collective learning session topics of the 18th CPC Central Committee Political Bureau as an example, out of a total of 43 sessions hosted, those covering theory, economics, social and livelihood issues and history accounted for 18%, 16%, 12% and 12% of the sessions respectively, while other  lessons were on topics like national defense and the military, anti-corruption and party construction, rule of law, ecology, culture and global governance.


It is evident from the course schedules of the Political Bureaus of the 18th and 19th CPC Central Committees that current issues and topics like population aging, big data and artificial intelligence were deemed important. The selection of topics and learning content shows that the Chinese leadership is closely following the latest trends in different fields, and is taking the hot-button issues in society seriously. The close connection between the learning content, changing circumstances and the needs of the people shows that the government is well aware of its priorities and the challenges that it is facing.


How learning sessions are organized

The organizing of the Political Bureau’s collective learning sessions follows strict operational protocols. The curriculum development process starts with topic selection and ends with the actual delivery of the lecture. It goes through four major steps:


First, a tentative topic is jointly determined by the General Office, the Central Policy Research Office of the CPC Central Committee and the relevant ministries and commissions, or chosen by the state leaders according to their purviews and policy concerns.

Next, top experts in the field are selected, to be followed by a series of evaluations before the process enters the preparation phase.

Prior to the lecture, a dedicated group on the topic will be formed to help with preparations. Over a period of three months, three trial lectures will be conducted before the lecture gets the go-ahead.

For the formal lecture, each session is around 120 minutes long and usually starts with two experts each delivering a 45 minute-lecture, to be followed by an exchange of views and discussion session and concluded with a speech by the general secretary of the CPC Central Committee.

While lecturing is a tried-and-true teaching method, from the 18th National Congress onwards, discussion, self-learning and research are also carried out in combination as additional methods for collective learning.

Members of the Political Bureau of the 19th CPC Central Committee on a collective learning visit to the People’s Daily newspaper office (Source: video screen capture)


Who are the teachers?

“To enter Zhongnanhai, one must be the top expert in the field and be politically reliable,” said Xu Yong (徐勇), director of the Institute of China Rural Studies (中國農村研究院) and a lecturer who once graced the podium at a collective learning session held in 2006. Many experts who shared the honor of doing so have spent time overseas as students or visiting scholars, and are the recipients of numerous international and national accolades.

Most hail from higher education institutions, party schools, academies of science, state or party research units like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (社科院) the Development Research Center of the State Council (國務院發展研究中心) and the Party School of the CPC Central Committee (中央黨校). A small number are from professional associations like The Chinese Society of Education (中國教育學會) and the Chinese Medical Association (中華醫學會). After finishing their lectures at Zhongnanhai, most would be invited by government bodies at various levels to lecture to them, as well. This presents a great opportunity for them to communicate the government’s policy inclinations, and present their academic views. The high regard in which their fields of expertise are held by the Chinese leadership also greatly helps the dissemination of knowledge.

The economist Lin Yifu (林毅夫) who served as chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank taught at Zhongnanhai in the 1990s (Source: Visual China Group)


What have the collective learning sessions accomplished?

In the current age, new technologies and new knowledge appear  in ever shorter cycles. The capacity to learn and quickly acquire additional knowledge has become an essential qualification for life in the 21st century. Even the best leaders cannot be knowledgeable in every field, so a quick way for them to become well-informed is to learn from experts who have spent years conducting research in their respective fields. Collective learning and discussion activities have also proved useful for pooling and stimulating collective wisdom, unifying thought, generating consensus, building cohesion, implementing key strategic plans and formulating important policies.

The topics selected reflect the leadership’s priorities and governance focus areas. They serve as a weather vane for those seeking to decipher the latest political trends.

The lecture scripts used are developed via a process of compromise and negotiation involving, different stakeholders, competing interests and various domains and disciplines of knowledge. This process helps ensure the public interests are served. Media reports on the collective study sessions also serve to propagate and promote policies.


In summary, governance is a continuous search for good and benevolent ways to rule in an ever-changing and complex environment. Decision makers must commit themselves to continuous learning to keep tabs on the latest developments and enhance their own abilities in policy making, so as to answer the people’s concerns and meet their expectations.

As the collective learning system of the Political Bureau evolves over time, it has helped the highest decision making organ of the Party Central Committee enhance its leaders’ capacity for learning and solving complex problems. It signifies the leadership’s commitment to effective governance and national modernization.  

Perhaps this is best summed up in the words of Bo Zhiyue (薄智躍) a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore (新加坡國立大學東亞研究所): “China’s impressive economic achievements could not have been possible without the zeal of the Chinese people, in particular its leadership, in pursuing knowledge. When it comes down to it, the so-called ‘China mode’ is, in essence, a mode of learning.”




Collective Learning System of the CPC Political Bureau and the Establishment of a  Study-Oriented Party (中央政治局集體學習制度與學習型政黨建設), by Wu Xiaoni (吳小妮), Wang Binglin (王炳林), Journal of Anhui Normal University (Hum.& Soc.Sci.) (安徽師範大學學報(人文社會科學版)), 2013 Issue 4

Developing Learning Ability on a National Scale -- A Case Study of CPC Political Bureau’s Collective Learning System (國家學習能力的建構——以中共中央政治局集體學習制度為個案的研究), by Wang Lixin (王禮鑫), Fudan Political Science Review (復旦政治學評論), 2015 Issue 1

Zhongnanhai’s Teachers (中南海裡的授課人), by Sun Rongfei (孫榮飛), Wu Ting (吳婷), Window of the Northeast (東北之窗), 2010 Issue 11

Lessons at Zhongnanhai -- Who the Teachers Are and What They Teach (授課中南海誰來講?講什麼?), by Shen Nianzu (沈念祖), Chinese Book Review Monthly (博覽群書) 2013 Issue 7

Collective Learning at the Political Bureau and National Governance -- An Analysis of Collective Learning at the Political Bureau since the 18th National Congress of CPC(政治局集體學習與國家治理——以十八大以來中央政治局集體學習為分析對象), by Huang Qisong (黃其松), Chen Fang (陳芳), Wang Jiaqian (王家倩), Social Sciences in Yunnan (雲南社會科學), 2017 Issue 5

A Review of the Collective Learning at the Political Bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee (論十八屆中央政治局的集體學習), by Tu Jingfen (屠靜芬), Zhang An (張安), Seeker (求索), 2016 Issue 8

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