The Leaderboard: Sun Chunlan

Who is she?

Until November 7, 2017, Sun Chunlan served as the director of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the central Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Born in 1950, she studied at the Anshan Institute of Iron and Steel Technology in Liaoning Province and later rose through the managerial ranks in an Anshan watch factory. After elevation to Party Secretary of Dalian in 2001, Sun was named Party Secretary of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in 2005. She served as Party Secretary of Fujian from 2009 to 2012 and as Party Secretary of Tianjin from 2012 to 2014. In 2014, she replaced Ling Jihua as the director of UFWD and became the first and only UFWD director to serve concurrently as a Politburo member. Sun was elected as an alternate member of the 15th and 16th Central Committees and was named a full member of the 17th, 18th, and now 19th Central Committees. She is most closely associated with former Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

Sun Chunlan of the People’s Republic of China. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Why is she in the news?

Long-regarded as a rising star for her success in her previous roles, Sun Chunlan is the only female member of the 19th Politburo of the CCP. Two female members — Liu Yandong and Sun herself — served on the 18th Politburo, but Liu reached retirement age prior to the 19th Party Congress. While many observers expected Li Bin to become another female Politburo member following Liu’s retirement, this did not happen. The 18th Politburo was the first Politburo since 1982 to include two women, with the 12th (in 1982), 16th, and 17th each including one and the others including zero (although Wu Yi was an alternate member of the 15th). Historical gender norms in elite Chinese politics, which informally reserve certain portfolios for women, combined with Sun’s status as the single female 19th Politburo member and her unique experience of having served in political office under three distinct Provincial Secretaries in Liaoning as Deputy Secretary, increase the likelihood of her political rise over the next five years.

What can we expect from her?

While the new positions for many Politburo members have been announced, Sun has not publicly stepped into a new role as of November 2017. Now that she has left her position as director of the UFWD, Sun is expected to be promoted to a new post. Sun might take on either the position of vice premier or state councilor when the National People’s Congress convenes and appoints officials to these roles in March 2018. Historical gender norms make this even more likely: the last two female Politburo members, Wu Yi and Liu Yandong, were both appointed as vice premiers. Additionally, with the exception of the 7th State Council in 1988, every State Council since 1982 has had a female member (either vice premier or state councilor). As vice premier, Wu Yi’s portfolio included trade, commerce, and public health and Liu Yandong’s portfolio as vice premier included education, science and technology, culture, and sports. It remains unclear what Sun Chunlan’s portfolio might include when she takes on her new role. Due to retirement age norms, Sun will reach the age limit prior to the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Additional Resources

And then there was one: A lone female sits among the top of China’s Communist Party, by Echo Huang, Quartz.

Status of China’s women leaders on the eve of 19th Party Congress, by Cheng Li, Brookings.


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